The new year is absolutely on fire with fantasy novels. And Circle of Shadows is no exception. It’s full of deceit and betrayal, magic and mysterious soldiers, and leading the charge are two of our new favorite best friends armed with throwing stars, daggers, and a lifetime of warrior training. Really, it has it all. This new fantasy duology (from The Crown’s Game author Evelyn Skye, so you know it’s going to be enchanting) does not let up from its very start, and y’all, it’s amazing.
If you liked the adventure of Flame in the Mist, or the romantic tension of Lady Midnight, or just want to read about more spies, danger, and supporting characters with more confidence than we could ever hope for (shout out to Fairy), then scroll down and fall in love with Circle of Shadows!
Circle of Shadows
“There are two possibilities after this stunt—we’ll be the empress’s favorite taigas or we’ll get expelled and taken away in chains,” Daemon said. His broad shoulders hunched as he bent down to talk to Sora. She was tall, but he was much taller—six foot two, officially, but six foot five when he styled his hair like this, stuck up in thick wild tufts of black.
“They won’t kick us out of the apprentice program.” Sora grinned. “I’m an expert at skirting the boundary between what’s technically allowed and what’s not, remember?”
Daemon made a face but still laughed. The slash of scars on his cheek danced, souvenirs from a fight with a wolf cub when he was two. “Trust me, no one knows better than I do how good you are at almost-but-not-quite breaking the rules.” He was Sora’s best friend, as well as her partner—her gemina—and that meant they were inseparable, through triumph and trouble.
With Sora, there were ample amounts of both.
They stood with their fellow students in the courtyard of Rose Palace, a majestic castle hewn entirely of dusty-pink crystal that filtered moonlight through its walls and shone like a prismatic beacon at the highest point of the island. Tonight, the Level 12 taiga apprentices had the honor of touring Rose Palace and performing an exhibition match before Empress Aki. Sora bounced on her toes in excitement.
She looked around the vast courtyard. Her hair, cut short along her jawline and dyed dark—as most taigas did—so she could better hide in the shadows, wisped across her face as she spun to take everything in. The palace walls were flawless and clear, soaring four stories up toward the open sky. There, the pink crystal had been cut like gems, their many facets sparkling and casting winking moonlight onto Sora’s formal uniform—flowing trousers and robes made of black silk, embroidered with the moon goddess Luna’s triplicate whorls in silver thread.
Beside Sora, Daemon gaped in disbelief. Rose Palace was even more stunning than they could have imagined. “I don’t know,” he whispered. “Are we sure we want to do this tonight?”
She wrinkled her nose at him. They had spent the entire summer plotting a surprise to be revealed during the exhibition match, and tonight was supposed to be the culmination of their hard work. “You, of all people, are getting cold feet?”
Daemon shrugged. “Maybe there are some places too sacrosanct for us to mess around with.”
“Those are exactly the sorts of places that need us,” Sora said. The Rose Palace invitation was an annual ritual, both to recognize young taigas in their final year before graduation and to instill in them a sense of pride at being a part of Kichona’s proud and fierce history. “Everything is beautiful here, but too serious. Besides, the empress has seen too many exhibition matches that follow the same formula. I think she’ll appreciate a little change. You know my motto. Work hard—”
“Mischief harder.” Daemon shook his head but smiled. “The taiga warriors are going to be really mad.”
Sora glanced over at the teachers who had accompanied them to Rose Palace. Their ordinarily stern faces were even sterner than usual. And they definitely had their eyes on Sora. She and her friends had a reputation for causing trouble—at the end of every term, her report cards inevitably said she was “talented but had difficulty following rules.”
They can’t really blame me, though, Sora thought. If the warriors would stop being so rigid, I wouldn’t have to break their rules. Just because things had been done a certain way for centuries didn’t mean it should continue being done that way forever.
Besides, Sora liked to think that the trouble she caused was the fun sort of trouble.
She grinned at Daemon. “The warriors are going to be more than mad. And I’m looking forward to it.”
Suddenly, the chatter among the apprentices extinguished, and a hush fell like a down blanket across the courtyard. Four members of the Imperial Guard—the elite warriors assigned to the empress—had marched in. Imperial Guards also appeared above, around the entire upper perimeter of the courtyard, eyes focused and weapons at the ready should they be needed.
A moment later, a young woman swept elegantly into the courtyard. Despite being just five feet tall, she could command the attention of the whole kingdom even if she were completely still. All eyes were on her now as she moved, the ten different shades of blue on her chiffon gown undulating like waves, her skirt swirling around her feet as if she were being carried in by the sea. The light from the crystal prisms above played with the gold in her hair. Empress Aki didn’t need a crown; members of the Ora family were born with the gleaming color of royalty already upon their heads.
Sora and the other apprentices fell to their knees and bowed, completely prostrate to the ground. “Your Majesty,” they said in unison.
“I welcome you to Rose Palace,” the empress said. “And I wish you a happy Autumn Festival.”
The apprentices bowed again, then rose to their feet as the empress settled into the only chair in the courtyard. The chair was surprisingly simple, made of unadorned wood. It didn’t even have a cushion. The only thing that marked it as the empress’s seat was the Ora imperial crest etched into the crystal wall behind it, a crowned tiger standing proudly beneath the sun and the moon, surrounded by the words “Dignity. Benevolence. Loyalty.”
Then again, perhaps the simplicity wasn’t so surprising. The palace may have been grand, but that was the doing of past rulers. Empress Aki was known for spending only what was necessary on herself, preferring instead to use Kichona’s coffers for the good of its people. In her ten years of rule, she’d ordered all the old schools in the countryside rebuilt, and new books for every child across the island. She invested in farms and agricultural research, and thus improved harvests, making sure no citizen went hungry. The kingdom had also grown wealthier than ever, thanks to her edicts that made trading with the countries on the mainland easier, stoking appetite abroad for Kichona’s colorful silks and delicate jewelry.
And then there was the constant stream of smaller details, like her frequent surprise visits to villages that had never had a member of the imperial family set foot on their soil before, or the fact that she paid for the Autumn Festival feasts throughout the kingdom. Empress Aki wasn’t known as “the Benevolent One” for nothing. Sora—and pretty much everyone in the kingdom—loved her.
“Your Majesty,” one of the taiga warriors said. “I am pleased to introduce you to this year’s Level Twelves. It is an honor for us to be here, and they have a gift for you as a token of their gratitude.” He nodded to Sora to step forward with the present, but his eyes narrowed, warning Sora not to do anything to embarrass the warriors.
She wouldn’t. Yet.
Sora reached into a hidden pocket in her sleeve. Usually, she stashed a knife there—there were many such places for weapons in the taiga uniforms—but tonight she retrieved a small velvet pouch. She wasn’t the teachers’ favorite pupil, but that had the opposite effect on her classmates, and Sora had been elected first chair, which meant she had the traditional honor of representing Level 12 before the empress tonight.
“Your Majesty,” Sora said, bowing again, “if I may, I would like to present to you a gift from our class.”
Empress Aki smiled kindly, and although she was only twenty-five—a mere seven years older than Sora—she had the gravitas of someone twice her age. “What is your name?” the empress asked.
“I am called Spirit.” It was the name the Society had given her at age seven, when she’d graduated from the nursery and become a taiga apprentice. No one called her Sora anymore except Daemon—also known as Wolf—who’d insisted on continuing to use their birth names so they’d have something special between them.
“Come forward, Spirit,” Empress Aki said.
With the permission of the Imperial Guards who stood on each side of the empress, Sora approached and placed the pouch into the empress’s delicate hands.
Empress Aki opened the drawstrings and let out a gasp of delight. A string of tiger pearls—black-and-orange-striped jewels that could be found only in the deep, underwater coves off Kichona’s southwestern shore—tumbled into her palm. Daemon had rallied everyone in Level 12 to contribute more to the gift than any class before them had managed to raise. Sora could feel his joy, warm as a campfire, beaming through their gemina bond. She smiled.
“It’s beautiful, thank you,” Empress Aki said, fastening the pearls around her neck, right next to an abalone shell locket. “Of course, there is also something else I am looking forward to before we tour the palace. I believe you’ve prepared an exhibition match?”
Sora’s nerves twinged. Fighting and magic were things she had no reason to be anxious about, but this would also be when she and her friends would reveal their surprise. It’s what Sora had been waiting for.
“Yes, Your Majesty,” she said, finding a smile. “It would be our pleasure to perform for you.”
She strode back to where Daemon waited. “Are you ready?” she asked.
“Never been readier.” Daemon rested a reassuring hand on her shoulder. “And so are you.”
The apprentices who were not participating in the exhibition moved to the back of the courtyard. Sora, Daemon, and the other Level 12s who remained stripped off their formal robes, revealing the taigas’ usual black tunics and trousers, charmed with an armadillo spell to create a thin layer of flexible armor, as soft as cotton but as strong as steel. They slid helmets made of similar armored fabric over their heads, covering everything but their eyes. And each apprentice was armed with plenty of knives, as well as their weapon of choice, which for Sora was throwing stars and darts, strapped into a leather band across her chest.
The apprentice serving as narrator began to speak, his deep voice carrying across the courtyard. “Many centuries ago, the kingdom of Kichona was born. Sola, goddess of the sun, blessed our island with wise leaders, from our first emperor, Dei the Silvertongued, to Empress Aki Ora today.”
The empress dipped her head in appreciation.
The narrator continued. “Luna, goddess of the moon and Sola’s sister, was tasked with protecting the imperial family and the kingdom. To do so, she blessed Emperor Dei’s fledgling army with the ability to summon the powers of Kichona’s animals in order to enhance the warriors’ own skill.
“By casting a cheetah spell, taigas could outrun ordinary men.”
A pair of apprentices sprinted across the courtyard in a blur.
“With a grasshopper spell,” the narrator said, “taigas could jump two stories in the air or leap across flooded rivers.”
A group of six apprentices vaulted across the courtyard, executing quadruple somersaults in midair before landing on the parapet above.
“And with a panther spell, taigas could sneak silently through the night. With Sola-blessed rulers on the throne and Luna-touched warriors protecting its shores, no invaders could match them, and Kichona thrived.”
There was an ominous pause before the narrator continued.
“Sometimes, however, the most dangerous threats come from within.”
The Imperial Guards on the wall above the courtyard drew a black tarp over the open roof, casting the space into darkness. There was only a narrow hole in the center of the tarp that allowed in a small amount of moonlight. Of course, the taigas didn’t need this to see; they could cast owl spells to enhance their night vision. But Empress Aki could not use magic and would need a hint of light to watch the rest of the show.
Beside Sora, her roommate pulled out a stiletto blade. She was known as Fairy because she’d always been petite, and her face was soft, with rose-kissed cheeks like a cherub. But many apprentices had figured out the hard way during sparring practice that Fairy didn’t battle like a dainty pixie. Made purely of muscle and pluck, she fought fast and dirty, and she made fun of the vanquished afterward.
Sora and Fairy were playing the heroes in the exhibition, and the two girls stepped into the center of the courtyard, Sora near the back and Fairy closer to where the empress sat. A large glass shield had been erected in front of Empress Aki to protect her. The apprentices were using practice weapons made of wood, but even those could hurt someone if they accidentally flew astray.
“Such danger came calling upon Kichona on an evening just a decade ago,” the narrator said. “It is always calm before a storm, and in that silence, Prince Gin and his soldiers sprang.”
Sora’s stomach clenched. She’d been only eight years old during the Blood Rift, but its mention still had a visceral effect on her.
Then-emperor Kenzo Ora had died unexpectedly of an aneurysm. Afterward, his children could not agree on how to rule the kingdom. Princess Aki wanted to continue their family’s legacy of peaceful prosperity, the foundation of Kichona’s happiness. However, her twin brother, Gin, belonged to the Cult of the Evermore, which believed that Zomuri, god of glory, would grant them paradise on earth if enough blood was shed in his name. Prince Gin wanted to utilize the taigas’ magic to build Kichona’s military might, to wage war and conquer neighboring lands.
Because the princess was nine minutes older than her brother, she was first in line for the throne. But nine is an unlucky number, according to Kichonan superstition. Prince Gin would not back down, not when the future of the kingdom was at stake. Taiga warriors took sides, and a brief but vicious civil war was fought. Prince Gin’s taigas battled cruelly in their attempted coup, decapitating soldiers and leaving their heads on spikes, gutting them alive, and forcing them to watch the murder of their friends.
But perhaps the most barbaric part of the Blood Rift—and what Sora remembered most vividly—was Prince Gin’s warriors setting the Citadel on fire. The inferno burned down many buildings, including the nursery, where Sora’s little sister and others perished.
The terror of that night shivered through Sora now.
Daemon reached through their gemina bond to soothe her, projecting the sensation of a placid lake. As the “leader” of the enemy, he was off to the side of the courtyard, but he could still sense Sora’s unease through their connection. It was as if he were saying, Remember, this is pretend. It’s only an exhibition.
Sora swallowed hard. Right. This wasn’t real.
Besides, Sora thought, if Empress Aki has no problem with the Level 12s commemorating the Blood Rift victory every year, then I should be able to deal with it. After all, the empress had had to battle against her own brother. That could not be an easy memory to bear.
Sora curled the fourth fingers on both hands so that they touched her thumbs and formed circles. “Sight like an owl,” she chanted softly three times.
The rims of Sora’s eyes tingled, and her vision sharpened just as Daemon and the other apprentices—“Prince Gin’s warriors”—began to creep out of the darkness in front of her. On the other side of the courtyard, they did the same to Fairy.
Sora crouched into a defensive stance, throwing stars already poised at her fingertips.
Prince Gin’s soldiers attacked, shouting, “For the future emperor!”
Sora unleashed a flurry of stars at the enemy. Two of them ducked, and one fell, feigning death.
Another wave of them came at her. She hurled more stars and darts, and then some more.
Sora spun away from an oncoming soldier, then threw a star behind her back at her attacker. It met the base of his skull. He stumbled, then fell as if dead.
She reached for another star. Her fingers ran over the band across her chest, but all she touched was leather. “Crow’s eye!” she swore, as if surprised. “I’m out.”
She unsheathed her daggers, one in each hand.
Prince Gin’s soldiers fanned out in front of her, Daemon included. He leered as he turned his sword in his palm. “There are many dangers lurking in the night,” he said. His voice oozed. “A pretty girl like you ought to stay tucked in bed if she wants to remain safe.”
“I would say the same of you,” Sora quipped, “except you aren’t the least bit pretty.”
He laughed, falling out of character for just a second. Then he yelled, “Get her!”
The soldiers hurtled toward Sora, swords raised. She wouldn’t have time to use magic—it required the sacrifice of setting weapons aside in order to form mudras with her hands—but she could still take out two or three of the soldiers. Four, perhaps. Sora smiled as she flexed her fingers around her blades.
The knife in her right hand slashed the throat of the first soldier. The knife in her left plunged into the side of the second. She had the right one ready to fly as a third soldier came streaking through the air. It hit him in the chest before he landed on the ground. Thump.
Fairy fought her way to Sora’s side.
“What took you so long?” Sora yelled over the clashing of blade against blade.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Fairy said, sneaking in a sardonic curtsy as she avoided an incoming throwing star. “I was hosting a tea party for our visitors on the other side of the battlefield and we got rather carried away. Was I supposed to be here sooner?”
Sora smiled. In the next breath, she sliced a soldier’s throat.
The narrator began to speak. “The Blood Rift was a tragedy. Many lives were lost.”
Bodies littered the ground. Sora and Fairy pivoted in the center of the courtyard, backs to each other, weapons at the ready for any other enemy that dared approach.
“But after a long night,” the narrator said, “Princess Aki’s taigas prevailed. The prince was fatally wounded, and his warriors took his body as they fled the kingdom, never to be heard from again.”
Daemon and the apprentices who played the remnants of Prince Gin’s army dropped their weapons and ran to the back of the courtyard, as if boarding ships that would take them away from Kichona’s shores.
Sora and Fairy remained in fighting stance for a few moments longer. Then the black tarp above them was retracted, and the moon shone brightly once more, as if the goddess Luna herself were smiling down upon them.
All the apprentices who had participated in the exhibition match stepped back into the middle of the courtyard. This was supposed to be the end, the part where they bowed.
Instead, they looked to Sora.
She looked at Daemon.
He nodded, and that reassurance was all she needed.
Sora hurled a throwing star at the hair trigger she’d set up on the parapets. The Imperial Guards knew it was coming, because Fairy had convinced them it would be a good idea; she could be very persuasive when she turned on her charm.
As soon as the star hit the trigger, the roofline over the courtyard lit up with a hundred sparklers.
“Yes!” Sora pumped her fist.
Their teachers, however, shouted in alarm and immediately began to cast spells to prepare themselves for a fight. The ones closest to Empress Aki ran to protect her from what they thought was an attack. Others began trying to shepherd the apprentices to safety.
But the Imperial Guards around the empress simply stepped in closer to her, holding their hands up to stop the teachers from leaping to her aid. The teachers stopped in confusion, until one of them turned and growled, “Spirit—”
He was cut off by the sky exploding in fireworks. Small yellow flowers, stunning purple starbursts, and red rockets careening across the glowing moon.
And finally, the pièce de résistance—an enormous tiger, composed entirely of crackling blue fireworks, topped with a sparkling gold crown. It was something Fairy and her gemina, Broomstick, had invented, a perfect combination of her expertise with chemicals and his passion for explosives.
Sora smiled so hard, her cheeks were about to break. Daemon, Fairy, and Broomstick piled around Sora, jumping and cheering.
Their teachers stood around the edge of the courtyard, seething at the ruins of what was supposed to be a solemn exhibition.
Empress Aki, however, seemed pleased. “Bravo,” she said, clapping with abandon. “How different from past performances. It’s very exciting that you are the next generation of taiga warriors. Kichona is truly blessed.”
Sora almost burst from the pride swelling in her chest. She grinned, and the apprentices all bowed.
The Imperial City was made up of three parts, with most of it carved into a mountain. At the top, Rose Palace perched on a cap of steep white quartzite, with sheer faces impossible to climb. A deep moat had been chiseled around the summit, another layer of protection for the rulers of the kingdom.
Below the moat, the face of the mountain shifted dramatically from white quartzite to dark granite, with only a winding, two-mile road etched into the rock, connecting Rose Palace to the world below. Sora and the Level 12s marched down that path now, heading back to the Citadel, the Society of Taigas’ headquarters on the lower third of the mountain.
Unlike the empress’s castle, the Citadel was a fortress where all the buildings were as dark as looming twilight. Black was the color of stealth and, hence, of the taigas, Kichona’s soldiers. The Citadel was the base of their operations, as well as where students like Sora trained. Its black outer walls were intimidating by design, severe and smooth, towering ten stories high. Inside the compound, everything was black too. Glorious, dark buildings covered in shiny, tiled rooftops as strong as armor. A black outdoor amphitheater sliced into the mountain. Even the temple to Luna was black from its pagoda roof to its wooden floors.
And then, the last part of the Imperial City was the Field of Illusions around the base of the mountain. But this was no ordinary field of grass; rather, it was a sea of black-and-white sand that shifted constantly in optical illusions, confusing and dizzying, such that the only people who could pass were taigas trained to filter out the hypnotic patterns, or those escorted by the warriors.
But tonight, Sora wouldn’t have to deal with that. They were approaching the Citadel from Rose Palace, so they’d be able to enter through the rear gates. Which was a good thing, because Sora was busy reveling over the fireworks she and her friends had pulled off, and she might not have been able to concentrate well enough on getting through the illusions. She probably would have found herself face-first in the sand.
Her reverie, however, was interrupted by Fairy, who broke ranks from farther back in the formation and jogged up to Sora and Daemon.
“What are your plans before everyone goes home for Autumn Festival?” Fairy asked.
“You mean, other than packing?” Sora said as she continued marching.
Fairy skipped alongside her. “That will take you all of five minutes.”
Daemon inched closer to join the conversation. “We were going to get in one last spar if we had the time.”
“Oooh, you have a wrestling date?” Fairy raised her eyebrows suggestively.
Sora laughed. Her roommate collected boys like some girls collected seashells. “You know, the male apprentices are more than just things to kiss.”
“I actually prefer to think of them as fresh meat to devour. Although Wolfie here can be pretty ferocious. Maybe he’ll devour me, which would be nice for a change. . . .”
Daemon shook his head, smiling.
“Fairy,” Sora said, laughing, “you keep fishing, but it’s not going to happen.”
Her roommate smacked her hand sarcastically to her heart and stepped backward, nearly jostling the next apprentice in line. “Spirit! You’ve mortally wounded me with your cruelty!”
“I think she’s broken,” Sora said to Daemon. “She keeps yammering at full speed. It’s like—”
“She put a cheetah spell on her mouth instead of her feet,” Daemon finished.
“Hey.” Fairy scrunched up her face. “I can hear you, you know.”
Daemon gave her a crooked smile. “We’re just teasing.”
She batted her eyelashes. “I like when you tease me, Wolf.”
Daemon laughed, and it blossomed through his and Sora’s gemina connection like a field of golden poppies.
Sora smiled. He’d let Fairy flirt with him, but she knew he wasn’t tempted. They’d all been friends for too long. And Sora was glad for that. Not that she wanted Daemon for herself. Society Code didn’t allow geminas to be together, because it could get in the way of their ability to serve the kingdom.
“Anyway,” Sora said to Fairy, “what did you run up here for?”
She shrugged. “Oh, nothing important. I just heard that the Council is going to give the Level Twelves their scouting missions today.”
“What?” Sora stopped.
The apprentice behind her bumped into her. “Hey!”
“Sorry,” she said and resumed marching. She turned her attention back to Fairy.
A scouting mission. The true marker of the final apprentice year. The Council—the Society of Taigas’ governing body—would be watching the Level 12s constantly this year, observing and ultimately deciding where to assign each gemina pair for their first post after graduating to full taiga-warrior status. The scouting missions were tests to show how each apprentice did in the field. The first mission would set the tone.
And yet Sora wasn’t sure whether to believe Fairy. Her roommate was a monstrous gossip, and only 20 percent of what she said was true. The other 80 percent . . . who knew what she was thinking?
“How do you know the Council is handing out missions tonight?” Sora asked. “They usually wait until after Autumn Festival.”
“My gemina works in their office, remember?”
Right. Broomstick—who’d been given the name because he’d been scrawny as a child—assisted the Council with administrative work, which, not so coincidentally, was the source of the 20 percent of Fairy’s gossip that was actually true.
“The Council decided to give us our assignments now,” Fairy said, “so we can go straight from the holiday break if we wanted to, rather than having to come all the way back here.” She shrugged. “Makes sense to me.”
“Wow,” Daemon said. “Our first mission.”
Sora nodded, unable to form words. She and Daemon had been looking forward to the first mission for different reasons—Daemon, for a chance to prove himself; Sora, for a glimpse into the future, when she wouldn’t be constricted by school rules—but they were propelled forward by the same pure anticipation.
Pleased with herself for breaking the news, Fairy grinned and spun away to return to her place in the formation. As they approached the tall iron gates at the rear entrance to the Society of Taigas’ headquarters, the glistening black walls of the fortress greeted them solemnly, surrounded by soaring, thick-trunked cypress trees older than the kingdom itself. The moon seemed to beam more brightly at the home of its chosen warriors.
Sora and Daemon straightened.
A chorus of voices shouted as the taiga warriors who guarded the gates surrounded the apprentices. They dropped from the roofs of the watch towers, from the trees, from the beams behind the massive gate. They were nowhere and everywhere, all at once.
The taigas always were.
Sora and the others fell immediately to their knees and splayed their empty hands on the dirt in front of them to show that their weapons remained stowed away. They touched their foreheads, too, to the ground.
“Cloak of night,” one of the guards at the gate said.
“Heart of light,” the apprentices recited in unison, finishing the Society’s motto.
“Welcome back, Level Twelves,” the gate guard said as Sora and her classmates rose to their feet. “The Council would like to see each gemina pair, in the order of your formation.” He met eyes with Sora and Daemon. “That means you’re going first.”
Anxious yet eager, Sora reached through her gemina bond for Daemon. He was nervous too—their connection vibrated like a guitar string that had just been plucked—but her presence met his, and they stilled each other. A little.
The iron gates of the fortress swept open on silent hinges.
“Shall we?” she asked.
He looked over at her and smiled. “We shall.”
Like all the buildings at the Citadel, Warrior Meeting Hall was styled in the taigas’ colors—black roof tiles, black wooden frames, black rice paper windows, with just a touch of gold in places like door handles and the stitching at the edges of the black reed mats on the floors. Black paper lanterns hung on the walls, their light muted yet not at all weak. Rather, there was a refined confidence to their understatedness.
The Council Room in Warrior Meeting Hall was the black heart of the Society. Glass Lady, the stout, unsmiling commander of the taigas, presided at the head of a table made of an impossibly large black stone dredged from the bottom of Kira Lake, fully formed, polished, and flawless. The lantern behind Glass Lady cast her long and sharp silhouette over the table, black on top of more black.
Two councilmembers—Scythe and Bullfrog, both in their fifties and therefore a good decade younger than Glass Lady—sat to her right. Strategist and Renegade, who were in their sixties, sat to her left.
“Commander.” Sora and Daemon bowed together as they stepped into the room. “Honorable Councilmembers.” They bowed again, to the left and the right. Then they stood before the Council table, their arms straight at their sides, palms forward and fingers open in a symbol of respect.
“Welcome, Spirit,” Glass Lady said. “And, of course, Wolf.”
Sora felt Daemon flinch through their gemina bond. Glass Lady had addressed Sora first, and Daemon as an afterthought. It happened fairly often, and he noticed every time.
Frankly, it was unfair. Yes, it was true that Daemon wasn’t the best at magic, which meant he couldn’t always enhance his stealth or his speed or his jumping as well as other apprentices could. But he compensated by fighting harder in the sparring arena than anyone else. He could win any physical fight blindfolded and with an arm tied behind his back.
But to Daemon, that was still a consolation prize. Sora knew this; she could sense it through their connection every time someone addressed her first and him second.
He had reassured her during the exhibition match. Now it was Sora’s turn to make him feel better. She sent a sense of togetherness through their bond, the solemnity of their commitment gleaming like polished steel, as if saying, Ignore her. We live and fight and die together.
She felt Daemon’s confidence steady.
“We are pleased to have a mission for you,” Glass Lady said, although she looked anything but. She stared at Sora and Daemon, her eyes as cold and sharp as the jewels in her hair, which glinted like shards of ice. Glass Lady was a classic taiga, all fight and no heart. Her favorite saying: If curiosity killed the cat, it was sentimentality that killed the taigas.
“After the Autumn Festival holiday, you will travel to Tanoshi and sweep the area,” she said. “Make sure everything is orderly there.”
“Tanoshi?” Daemon’s face fell. “It’s just an ordinary village.”
Not all warriors could be Imperial Guards. Some protected the kingdom’s important cities, while others were assigned to ordinary patrols, acting as local police forces to keep the peace for regular citizens. Being assigned to Tanoshi for their first mission indicated that Sora and Daemon were on the path to the latter. Sora didn’t care; as long as she was with her friends, she was happy. But it mattered to Daemon.
Glass Lady narrowed her eyes at him. Sora bit her lip.
“If the two of you applied yourselves more, perhaps you would have gotten a more challenging mission,” Glass Lady said. “Spirit, you have the highest grades in magic even though I am quite certain you rarely practice. If you tried as hard in your training as you do at purposely breaking our rules, you could be in the Imperial Navy after graduation. But you know all this. Your teachers have told you every year, and you obviously do not care.”
Sora forced herself not to shrug. The Imperial Navy was the most prestigious post possible after graduation from apprenticeship; it was the start of the path to becoming an Imperial Guard. But why would she want that? She’d spend all her days on a boat, scrubbing decks under the unforgiving sun, living in the confines of a ship. If dealing with the rules of the Citadel was bad, being stuck at sea with nowhere to escape the captain’s eye sounded like a nightmare.
“Tanoshi is a perfect mission for us, Commander,” Sora said.
Glass Lady let out a long exhale, as if it took all of her patience. “You’re lucky we didn’t refuse to give you a mission at all, after that stunt at Rose Palace tonight. We will mete out an appropriate punishment, but that will have to wait, as we have other missions to assign. For now, you are dismissed.”
“Thank you, Commander,” Sora said, relieved. She placed both fists over her heart, the taigas’ symbol of loyalty. Daemon did the same. “Cloak of night. Heart of light,” they recited.
The councilmembers saluted with double fists over hearts and repeated the Society motto as well.
“Happy Autumn Festival, and have a good mission,” Scythe—the least stern of the warriors—said.
As Sora and Daemon burst out of the Council Room doors, Fairy and Broomstick left their places in line and ran up to them.
“What’d you get?” Fairy asked, her eyes as bright as if they’d been sprinkled with pixie dust.
“Tanoshi,” Sora said.
“Can’t wait until it’s our turn to get our assignment,” Fairy said. “You’ll have a great time in Tanoshi. The boys there are cute.”
Sora laughed, then turned to Daemon. “Can you believe it? Our first real mission!”
He frowned. “What if there’s nothing in Tanoshi?”
Broomstick made a face. He may have been skinny as a child, but he’d more than made up for it over the years. He was one of the biggest Level 12s now, and he looked menacing with his shaved head and eyebrows half-singed from his experiments blowing things up. But the effect was countered by his constant smile and the fuzzy blond hair all over his arms. He was the kingdom’s most lethal teddy bear. “Why would it be bad if there’s nothing in Tanoshi?” he asked. “Are you afraid that the kingdom is perfectly safe?”
“No,” Daemon said. “I’m afraid that there’s nothing there, and we’ll come back with nothing to report, and our first mission will look like an enormous zero.”
“Don’t worry,” Sora said. “No matter what, we’ll make it an adventure. Anyway, we live and fight and die together, right?” she said.
Daemon grinned. “We do.” He clapped his arm around her and laughed. “But perhaps we should try not to die quite yet.”
The next afternoon, Daemon and Sora made their way to Tanoshi. It was on the way to Sora’s parents’ home on Samara Mountain, where they would spend the Autumn Festival. They figured they might as well get their mission out of the way first, so they could relax during the rest of the break.
Before the discovery of tiger pearls made Kichona prosperous, the island kingdom had been unremarkable, subsisting mostly on fishing and agriculture. Many of the villages, like Tanoshi, still reflected this history, made up of small, well-kept wooden buildings with curved ceramic tiles on the roofs. Every few blocks, there was another impromptu shrine for this minor god or another. And thousands of acres of vineyards and apple orchards around Tanoshi perfumed the air with sweetness, especially now during grape harvest season.
They left their horses—and their taiga uniforms—at a coaching inn. In order to blend in to assess the state of the town, they wore ordinary layman’s clothes, which was always a bit jarring. While taigas wore stark black, civilians in Kichona embraced color, and lots of it—the more vivacious, the better. Sora wore a silk blouse modeled after a violet—lighter purple at the collar and sleeves, deep plum closer to her stomach, and a vivid starburst of yellow in the center—and her trousers were green, like the stem of the flower. Daemon had on a turquoise tunic embroidered at the hem with a pink-and-orange coral reef. He drew the line, though, at garish pants, opting instead for a pair of narrow gray trousers. There was only so much he could stomach to blend in.
Nevertheless, it was good enough, for the townspeople walked past them without a second glance. Everywhere Daemon and Sora went, people were smiling, pausing to chat with each other under strings of orange Autumn Festival lanterns or in front of crates of muscat grapes. They bought each other cold bottles of freshly pressed pear juice—traditional in this region of Kichona in the fall—and drank them together on the sidewalk.
“This place is so peaceful,” Daemon said, but it was more of a complaint than a compliment.
“Isn’t that a good thing?” Sora asked. “This kind of life is what the Ora emperors and empresses have always wanted for Kichona.”
Daemon shrugged. She was right, of course. There were pirates roaming the ocean surrounding the kingdom, but the Imperial Navy worked diligently to keep them away from shore so the regular citizens of Kichona didn’t suffer. The Imperial Army kept posts throughout the island to ensure that traders from the mainland were really traders and not anything more nefarious. And there were also local police forces of taigas to keep the peace.
Even so, Daemon was jittery. “I just want something to do today, something to show for our work. If we’d been sent to a bigger ocean-side town, we could have investigated the harbors for suspicious ships. Maybe we would have found some pirates or smugglers or, I don’t know, a spy from another kingdom. But here in farm country . . . what are we even looking for?”
“Don’t worry,” Sora said. “As long as we’re thorough, we’ll get good marks.”
He knew it was hard for her to understand his need to prove himself. Sora was naturally good at magic. She had the luxury of not caring, because everyone knew that if she ever became ambitious, she’d blow them all out of the water. Daemon, however, constantly questioned whether Luna had made a mistake in marking him as a taiga.
But then Sora smiled at him, and he was momentarily dazed. She was tall and lean, all grace and muscle, and when the sun hit her just right—like it was doing now—he could see her curves silhouetted through the thin silk of her blouse. She had a spattering of freckles across her cheekbones, and her nose ended in a button that was an adorable contrast to her fierceness. He fought the urge to run his fingers through her hair, which fell like a painter’s brush along the edge of her jaw.
He touched his own hair. His blue roots were due to be colored soon. Technically, he didn’t have to dye it; it was dark enough in its natural state to comply with Society Code. But a genetic quirk gave him blue hair, and the strangeness meant he’d been teased mercilessly during their early years at the Society. As soon as he turned seven and became a taiga apprentice, he’d dyed his hair black and had kept it that way ever since. Daemon winced at the memory.
But Sora was still smiling, and his embarrassment faded away. Her mere presence made everything better.
“Should we check the north side of town first and make our way south?” she asked. They knew Tanoshi fairly well. Other than Shima, Tanoshi was where apprentices liked to go when they had weekend leave from the Citadel.
“You want to do the south side last because you’re hoping to end up at a restaurant there, huh?” Daemon smirked. “Always letting your stomach lead.”
“You know me so well.”
His heart skipped happily.
They started down the first street. This section of Tanoshi was all business, made up mostly of stern wooden buildings bereft of decoration, lined up on a straight grid of streets numbered one through five from north to south, and named by trade from east to west. There was Accounting Street, Bookbinder Way, Architect Road, and many others. It was quiet here, and Daemon and Sora finished sweeping through the streets quickly.
Next was the residential district. The buildings here had considerably more character than the ones in the business grid. Although the homes themselves were simple in architecture—compact wood structures with brown tile roofs—each door was painted brightly to express the family’s personality. One was rainbow striped. Another featured a fisherman catching an enormous fish, bigger than the sun. Another depicted the life cycle of a phoenix, from egg to bird to flames and ashes, in a never-ending circle.
In front of all this, a small group of children played in the middle of the dirt road, chasing after a ball and swatting at it with sticks.
“I wonder what it would be like to live in a place like this?” Daemon said.
“You’d go stir-crazy,” Sora said. “It’s lovely, but there wouldn’t be enough to occupy you.”
“Good point.” He never seemed to have enough outlets for his energy. It was part of the reason he was so good at combat; he spent extra hours in the sparring yard to attempt to wear himself out each day. It worked. Sort of.
Farther down the road, a woman poked her head out of a doorway decorated with a pink elephant. “Keni, time for homework!” she yelled at one of the boys playing in the road. “Your father will be home soon for dinner.”
Daemon quickly turned away and hurried onto the next block. If he stayed any longer, he’d start thinking again about life in a village like Tanoshi, with parents who cared about him. And then he’d wonder about knowing who his parents were at all.
As the mother’s voice receded behind Daemon, he slowed his steps. Sora caught up but didn’t say anything. She would know through their gemina bond how he was feeling. For years, he’d smothered his questions about who he was and where he’d come from.
But frankly, he was tired of it.
“It’s our last year before we graduate,” Daemon said. “After this, we won’t have as much time on our own because we won’t have school holidays. So I was thinking . . .”
Sora stopped in the middle of the road. “Yeah?”
He shook his head. “Never mind. It’s stupid.”
“Nothing you think is stupid, Daemon. What is it?”
He scrubbed his hand through his hair. That irritatingly black-but-actually-blue hair. “I was thinking that maybe I’d try this year to figure out who my parents are. Or were. I want to know where I came from, who I am.”
Sora smiled. “I think that’s a great idea.”
He brightened. “Really?”
“Okay then.” The cloud over him dissipated, and knowing that Sora supported him allowed him to put the idea aside for now. It took only another minute for him to refocus on their mission. “Let’s wrap up the residential area and go downtown.”
“Sounds like a plan,” Sora said.
His steps lightened as they entered the noisier part of Tanoshi, full of shops and restaurants. There were artisan pottery stores, dry-goods shops carrying everything from rice to fishing rods, and stores for every other service the townspeople might need.
Daemon and Sora swept through the streets a little more slowly, since there was more to observe. But all was also in order here.
“Sorry we didn’t find any illegal warehouses full of opium,” Sora said.
“Guess we couldn’t be that lucky on our first mission.”
“Or maybe we can. A different kind of lucky.” She smiled broadly as she stopped in front of an enormous red lantern. It was the entrance to an iz, a tavern that specialized in skewers of all variety of meat, from chicken thighs to chicken livers to more acquired tastes, like gecko marinated in squid ink. Panels of blue cloth hung in the doorway, and raucous conversation wafted out of the iz along with the charcoal smoke of its tireless grills.
Sora’s stomach growled loud enough to be heard even over the street noise.
“Hungry?” Daemon asked.
“What else is new?”
They pushed through the cloth panels into the iz and found a seat at a table in the corner. A boy a few years younger than them appeared and asked for their order. He also appraised Daemon’s shirt and, after a second, nodded, a silent compliment.
Daemon really hadn’t needed garish pants to blend in.
Sora perused the menu. “We’ll have two orders each of bacon-wrapped shrimp, mushroom beef, and the ginger-honey chicken skewers, please.”
“And a carafe of cold sake and some tea,” Daemon said.
The serving boy had been gone hardly a minute when he returned with their drinks. Daemon poured. “Cheers to us finishing our first mission.”
She clinked her cup with his.
Soon, their meal arrived. The skewers were perfectly charred, each with a different sauce drizzled over the meat. Sora picked one and put it to her lips. Daemon watched, mesmerized by her mouth. Heat flushed through him.
Damn it! He jerked up his mental ramparts to block their bond, hoping Sora hadn’t felt his reaction through their connection. It’d been harder and harder recently to see her simply as his gemina. Everything he’d taken for granted about her in the past had started to captivate him—her sharp intelligence, her ferocious chokehold, even the way her pinkie stuck out a little when she held a skewer in her hand.
He flinched, though, at what those feelings meant. It would be disastrous if a romantic gemina relationship failed, because you’d still be bound to that taiga for life—sharing emotions, working with each other, together despite the desperate or angry desire to be apart. That’s why the Society forbade it.
Daemon poured himself another cup of sake and swallowed it in a single gulp to wash away the heat of his feelings for Sora.
At the bar behind her, shouts broke out. A glass shattered. Six men began to advance on each other, fists clenched.
Thank the gods, Daemon thought. A distraction.
He and Sora both stood.
“May I?” Daemon asked.
She flourished her arm in front of her. “Please, be my guest.”
He grinned, hopped over his chair, and pushed his way into the fight. He bounced on his toes. This was part of what had been missing today. Adrenaline. The feeling that he could do something.
“Gentlemen,” Daemon said, “would you kindly take it outside? You’re ruining the atmosphere in here.”
Two of the men who’d been in each other’s faces spun around and sneered at him. “If you knew what was good for you, you’d stay out of this, boy,” the bearded one said.
“Actually,” Daemon said, “if you knew what was good for you, you’d leave like I asked.”
“Smart mouth,” the other man said, “but not such a smart brain.” He wound up and took a swing.
Daemon dodged easily, grabbed the man’s arm, and hurled him through the air. The man sailed toward the exit, landing with an ungraceful flail as he hit the ground under the blue curtains at the door of the iz.
“Now, you can leave quietly,” Daemon said to the five others, “or I can throw you out like that fellow.”
The men’s faces turned bright red, and despite fighting each other only a minute ago, they now united against Daemon. They all pulled out knives.
“Right,” Daemon said. He could pull out a weapon too—gods knew he had enough little daggers, darts, and throwing stars hidden on his body—but he didn’t want to hurt them much. They were just drunkards getting a bit out of hand. Instead, Daemon cracked his knuckles and smirked while they approached. The rest of the iz had gone silent in tense anticipation.
The first man charged at him with a knife raised above his head. Amateur, Daemon thought as he sidestepped while simultaneously smashing the side of his hand like an ax into the man’s forearm.
The man immediately dropped the knife and fell to the ground cradling his arm. It wasn’t broken, but it would feel that way to him for a little while.
The next man advanced on Daemon with quick, continuous slashes.
Daemon stepped backward, straight into a bunch of huddled diners, too frightened to be caught up in the fight but too paralyzed to flee. Daemon had to adjust his path, arcing away from the table and back toward the bar.
Of course, that’s where the other three men were waiting. Their knives were out and pointed at Daemon as he backed toward them, like bayonets ready to impale him.
Daemon continued to edge closer and closer.
“He really is an idiot, isn’t he?” one of the men said.
At that moment, Daemon slid himself backward, taking out the man directly behind him. Daemon swept his leg right and then left, knocking out the feet of the other two. They landed with profanity-laden crashes at the base of the bar.
Daemon spun to meet the lone man standing, who was advancing faster now. The slashing of his knife grew quicker but also sloppier, driven by rage and likely several ounces of fear.
So predictable, Daemon thought.
He lunged forward and slammed a fist to the man’s throat while simultaneously grabbing and twisting the knife arm. He locked the arm, kneed the man in the ribs, and stripped him of his knife.
Only now did Daemon unsheathe a short sword from the scabbard strapped to his calf, hidden beneath his trouser leg. He brandished it at the five men on the ground.
“I’ll give you one last chance to get out of here with your limbs and innards intact,” Daemon said.
They glared at him, pride severely wounded. But all five of them—excluding the one already thrown to the exit—hustled out of the tavern without any further threat.
The iz erupted into hoots and applause.
Daemon nodded his head in a small gesture of acknowledgment and went back to his table, where Sora waited.
She was smiling. “You really are art in motion when you fight.”
He flushed from the tips of his ears down to his neck.
Luckily, he was saved by the bartender, who set another carafe of sake on the table. “You two are taiga apprentices, aren’t you?”
“Yes,” Daemon said, beaming proudly. “You could tell?”
The bartender chuckled. “Normal people don’t fight like that, and they aren’t as honorable. Thank you for keeping the peace.”
“It was my pleasure,” Daemon said, his cheeks beginning to hurt from smiling so hard. “And thank you for the sake.”
So? Are you ready to get lost in this Feudal Japan-inspired world? Let us know what you thought!