When NYSA discovers that she is a Wonder-Weaver, a rare and powerful magician, she must earn the trust of taciturn guard KEIR to escape their city before her power is leashed to its corrupt officials. Yet Keir has his own deadly secret— he isn’t who he says he is, nor does he want to leave. The two teens become begrudging allies when they discover that the lethal fever spreading through the poorest quarter of their city is actually a mass poisoning. If they can’t find a cure and expose the murderers, it will bring their city to the brink of war.
This is the first in a two book series.
She shouldn’t have looked. Nysa’s hand shook as she held back the thick, black curtain. Antonia had warned her it would be crowded, but this was madness! The cavern chamber was packed so tight the noblewomen could barely wave their fans without smacking one another.
Rot. Nysa dropped the curtain and thrust a hand into her pocket, desperate to feel the grounding bite of her worry stone against her palm.
It was gone.
No. She checked again, frantically turning out the pockets of her thin white dress and patting herself down. No no no! Her gaze darted to the floor. She’d never lost the precious crystal, never once misplaced it, but—
Understanding hit like a punch to the sternum. She thought she’d felt Antonia slip her hand into the pocket, but she’d brushed it off, assuming the woman was simply fussing over her clothing as usual. The one link to her family, stolen from under her nose on the very day she needed it most. Of all the Fates-damn—
“Miss Marinus?” The amber-eyed attendant touched Nysa’s arm. “It is time.”
Nysa swallowed, hard. It’s just a minute, she reminded herself. One minute of agony, and then she’d attain the one thing that mattered most: her freedom. “All right.”
The woman bowed and held the curtain aside.
Nysa took a steadying breath and entered the chamber. The trapped heat of the overcrowded, muggy space hit her like a wave, powerful and dizzying. The pool sat dead ahead, more akin to a bubbling cauldron than a healing spring. Big enough to fit several full-grown men, it exhaled clouds of steam that filled her nose with the scent of rotted eggs.
Drexel stood before it, hands folded inside his long, black robes. Tonight, he played the role not of her keeper or friend, but that of the Master of Trades. Unlike his wife, who stood in the front row wearing a sour expression, his face was so blank he looked to be cut from stone.
Nysa looked past them, through the clouds of steam to the veins of pure white crystal that bisected the rear wall, shimmering in the torchlight like the strands of a giant spider web.
The attendant struck the gong and the assembly turned as one, a hundred pairs of eyes focused solely on her.
Nysa’s heart slammed against the cage of her ribs, but she stared at the wall and forced one foot in front of the other.
Too soon she reached the pool. Scalding hot water bubbled and lapped at her toes, and steam folded around her shoulders, heavy and oppressive.
“Do you give your life in service to the Fates?” Drexel asked in perfect Cor.
Skata. Her mouth went dry. She couldn’t remember if she was to say “yes” or “I do.” A bead of sweat trickled between her shoulder blades. She tugged at her skirt.
Drexel gave a pointed cough. Someone giggled.
“Yes,” Nysa responded a little too loudly. Her voice bounced off the cavern walls, eerie and hollow to her own ears. “I do.”
Drexel shook his head ever so slightly, and she realized she’d failed to respond in Cor. Her face flared with heat.
“Witnesses.” Drexel’s gaze slid over the assembly. “Do you accept her vow?”
A resounding, “We do,” echoed through the cavern.
Fates. She wasn’t ready for this.
“Nysa Anora Marinus, daughter of Samuel and Talia Marinus—” Drexel paused, his expression softening at the mention of her late parents’ names. “Drink, and seal your promise.”
She took the proffered silver goblet without meeting his eyes. It should be her father’s deep timbre speaking the sacred words, her father’s coal-black eyes looking on with pride as she stepped into adulthood. Not now. You can’t fall apart now. Nysa’s hands shook as she raised the chalice to her lips.
She choked on the first sip. No one had told her the wine would be laced with morsus, a bitter root used to dull the senses.
If only it could numb her heart, too.
Nysa drank it all, even as her lips and tongue numbed. The acidic brew dribbled down her chin and stained the bodice of her dress like a growing bruise.
Drexel took back the empty chalice and stepped aside, his robes stretching like tar as they clung to the wet rock at his feet. “Enter in faith.”
Nysa’s legs shook as she descended the stone steps into the steaming pool. She clenched her jaw as the scorching water rose up her calves, her hips, her breasts.“Fates be kind,” she whispered.
With eyes wide open, she plunged below the surface.
The pain came immediately, like two searing hot brands to the eyes. Nysa shot up and clawed for the steps, the rough stone scraping her hands and knees. She squeezed her eyes tight against the agonizing burn and bit her lip until the coppery taste of blood filled her mouth, refusing to cry out. She would not shame herself. She would not.
Drexel helped her to her feet and guided her to the selection stone, the raised dais in the center of the chamber. “Kneel,” he instructed in a low murmur.
Nysa dropped to her knees, gritting her teeth to keep from sobbing. Like a half-boiled fish escaped from the pot, every inch of her body felt raw and scorched.
Drexel tilted her head back. “Open your eyes.”
She blinked until her caretaker’s face emerged, a smear of white against a backdrop of gray. She could just make out the black of his eyes and the dark splotch of his goatee. Silver flashed in the torchlight as he lifted the jug of water that would provide her sweet, sweet relief.
It never came.
He stood frozen, his hand suspended in the air. “Impossible.”
“What is it?” Nysa asked. “What’s wrong?” Had her eyes failed to change? The thought made her sick. Those with gray eyes were considered cursed, forcibly exiled from the Heart Center.
“Antonia!” Drexel bellowed for his wife.
The sharp clatter of high-heeled shoes echoed through the chamber, and Antonia stepped onto the dais and seized Nysa’s chin. “Blessed Fates!” She immediately released her and rushed from the platform, a surge of whispers rising in her wake.
“Please, Drexel!” Nysa seized his robes, her eyes burning for want of the cooling water.
“Wait here.” Drexel pried his robes from her fingers, set the jug aside, and followed after his wife.
Anxiety squeezed Nysa’s lungs. She couldn’t stay here— not if they were calling for the Enforcers. She clambered forward, grabbed the jug, and dumped it over her head. The cool water instantly soothed her stinging eyes and cleared her vision. Nysa dropped the pitcher with a clatter and blinked out at the crowd, preparing to flee.
A woman gasped and slapped a hand over her mouth. Another screamed.
Something was very, very wrong. Nysa spun around, her breath turning shallow as she scrambled for the inlaid mirror in the center of the dais. She was almost too terrified to look, but she had to know.
A green-eyed girl stared back at her.
No. Nysa blinked and rubbed her eyes, but the image didn’t change. No! Surely, she was seeing things. She pressed her hands to the floor, dizzy. This couldn’t be happening—magic didn’t exist anymore. Her eyes were supposed to be black. Nysa swayed. Why weren’t they black? I’m a scholar, not a, a—
The floor rushed up to meet her as blackness claimed her vision.
* * *
“Careful, Majka!” Keir’s hand darted out and grabbed his mother as she stumbled on her skirts, narrowly saving her from falling down the dark cavern steps. He guided her hand to the metal railing with a frown. Her skin was cool to the touch, her arm far thinner than it should be. Though she was still young, naught but four and thirty years to her name, lately she’d been moving like a woman thrice her age.
“You haven’t called me mama in ages,” Vera said, her eyes crinkling to slits as she smiled up at him. “See? Ortus is bringing me blessings already.”
Keir rolled his eyes. What they said about healers was true: they really were averse to their own medicine. “C’mon,” he pressed. “Let’s rest for a tick.” Though she wouldn’t admit it, Keir knew the trek up to the cavern’s northern entrance had worn her out. It was the one downside to living in the lowest quarter of a city built onto a mountainside: anytime they wanted to go somewhere, they had to climb.
“I’m fine.” Vera smoothed her skirts and then touched the gemstone studs in her right nostril. A mark of her Tekat blood, she had a superstitious habit of tapping the tiny firestones to ward off misfortune. “Really, you worry too much.”
“Guilty as charged.” Keir offered her his arm. “Well?”
Vera narrowed her hazel eyes, her long black hair shining in the torchlight.
“Come now. If we pass any attendants, I’ll look like quite the gentleman.” Keir wiggled his eyebrows.
Vera’s laugh was like the chime of a dancer’s cymbals, bright and quick. She shook her head and threaded their arms together. “You still haven’t told me what you want for your Changing.”
“I don’t need anything.” It’s not that big of a deal, he didn’t add.
All children in Ager Magis were born with a thin, gray film over their eyes. While most believed it a gift from the gods, a shield to protect against the pressures of adulthood until one was prepared to face his destiny, Keir joked the membrane was proof that man really had evolved from lizards. Besides, with his dark skin and black hair, he already knew he’d spend the rest of his days in the lower quarter with the other brown-eyed common folk.
“You’re getting something whether you like it or not,” Vera said with mock sternness. “Turning sixteen is not an everyday occurrence.”
Keir led her down the stairs and onto the trail, the cavern opening up before them. “You know what I want?”
Vera regarded him expectantly.
“A moment to take in the sights.”
She pinched his side, making him laugh. He wrapped an arm around her shoulders, and they turned to regard the cavern. An underground stream gurgled and sighed as it snaked its way downhill, following the right side of the trail. Below sat the Latnus, the cavern’s central and largest chamber. Trails leading north, south, east and west crisscrossed the colossal space, each one lined with candles. From up here, the soft pinpoints of light made Keir feel as if he were about to walk through a sea of stars.
Vera pulled a ceramic jug from her satchel and moved to the stream to fill it. “Well,” she said, tucking the jug back in her bag. “Pojd’mes!”
“Ta,” Keir agreed with a chuckle. “Let’s get this over with.”
Arm in arm, they descended the winding trail to the cavern floor. As they walked, Keir thought about what the morrow would bring. He had a few deliveries to make, but perhaps he’d stop by the tannery after, see if there was any work to be had.
While most youth entered apprenticeships directly after their Changing, Keir was too busy to explore his options. A mysterious disease had been spreading throughout the Southerns for months now, and he and his mother had been working round the dial in search of a cure. Known as Shadow Fever, the illness slowly ate away at a person’s sight, strength and coordination, leaving them blind and crippled. In short, it was one of the worst possible ways to go.
They arrived at the cavern floor and turned right, taking a narrow tunnel that dead-ended in a small, circular room. The space was rudimentary, nothing but a pool, a bench, and a line of hooks hammered into the wall, but Keir thought it perfect. One of the more ornate chambers closer to the source of the springs would’ve cost five silver crux, a full week’s wages.
While Vera hung up their cloaks, Keir flipped the two hourglasses secured to the walls on either side of the entrance, beginning their time.
“I’m sorry Zeke couldn’t be here,” she said.
Keir waved her off, picturing his best friend who’d no doubt bounce around the chamber and kill the otherwise peaceful mood. “I’m glad it’s just us.” He sat down and removed his boots, sighing with relief when his toes were freed from the too-tight leather.
Vera rooted through her bag, withdrawing a vial and a wooden cup.
“Don’t bother with the wine, Ma,” he said, rising to join her.
She gave him a dubious look.
“I’m serious.” Keir gently took the vial and placed it back in the bag.
“Save it for your clients.”
“You don’t have to prove anything to me, you know.”
“Maybe not to you, but I do have a bet with Zeke.”
“Oh! You—” Vera tried to smack him, but Keir laughed and ducked away. “Fine. But this,” she yanked the jar of water from her back and shook it at him, “isn’t optional. It’ll help you heal.”
“Yes, Majka.” Keir pressed a placating kiss to his mother’s temple and slipped her bag from her shoulder, laying it aside. “Ready?”
Vera took his hand and together they stepped toward the shallow little pool, no bigger than their washtub. In a voice dipping with emotion, she asked, “Do you willingly give your life in service to the Fates?”
“No,” he shook his head. “But I do pledge my life in the service of justice. And truth.”
Vera smiled. “I accept your vow. Enter the water, and embrace your fortune.”
Keir stepped into the pool. The warm water lapped at his chest, plastering his thin, white tunic against his skin. Thin curls of steam rose up to fill his nose and mouth, making him feel as if he’d bitten into a rotten egg. He bent lower, until the water was at his chin.
A tiny stream of bubbles beat at his side, and he turned his head, tracking it to a thin crack in the rock. Though his friends had told him the world wouldn’t look any different, once the Veil of Ortus had been stripped from his eyes, he couldn’t help but hope they were wrong. Lately it seemed as if all the color were being leeched from his life, slowly overshadowed by grief. It’d be nice to feel hopeful, again.
He took a deep breath, and ducked below the surface.
The pain hit immediately, like being slapped in the face by a porcupine’s tail. Keir stood in a rush, gasping in shock.
“This way,” Vera softly beckoned.
One agonizing step at a time, Keir climbed from the pool and knelt at her feet.
“Open your eyes.”
Keir fisted his hands against the pain and blinked until her face emerged, a blur of black hair and sun-browned skin.
“Blessed Fates,” she whispered.
“Quit teasing, Ma.” Keir gritted teeth. Zeke owed him, the bastard. This was worth way more than two pints.
Vera laugh-sobbed and doused his eyes, washing away the pain.
Keir sighed in relief and opened his eyes to find his mother standing before him, tears streaming down her face. “Aww.” He took her hand. “It’s all right. Brown eyes aren’t that bad.”
“No.” She laughed again, covering her mouth with a trembling hand.
“The Fates have given you a choice.”
Keir fought the urge to rub his eyes. They were as raw as if he’d been caught in a sandstorm. “You’ve been at the wine, haven’t you?”
“Look.” Vera pulled out her shiny dagger and held it sideways in front of his face.
Keir blinked, confused. One eye was brown, as expected. But the other was a deep, dark blue. He leaned closer, thinking it a trick of the torchlight, but sure enough, his right eye was the same, lethal azure of the nyger adder’s scales. He barked a startled laugh. Blue was the color of honor, adventure, and sacrifice—the color of a warrior.
“Oi!” a man shouted from the tunnel outside the chamber. “Where are you guys?”
Keir cursed and scrambled to put his back to the door. Of all the rotten—
“Time to make a choice,” Vera instructed, her voice low and urgent. She stepped in front of him, gaze darting to the passageway as she bent to cut a strip of fabric from the hem of her skirt. Behind him, the rhythmic thud of swiftly approaching footfalls. “We have to hide one of your eyes. Which—”
“Don’t tell me I missed it!” Zeke boomed.
Keir slapped a hand over an eye. His best friend was as loyal as they came, but this was the type of secret that got men killed.
“Sorry, K! I tried, man. I really did,” Zeke huffed. “You know how it is— blessing ceremonies go on for ages.”
“I’m surprised you escaped at all,” Keir tried to tease, but his voice came out rougher than he intended. Strained.
“What’s up with your eye?” Zeke asked, stepping around to face him.
Keir flicked his gaze to the floor and dropped his hand so that Vera could fashion him a makeshift eye patch. “Nothing.” He stared at her feet, his pulse thudding in his ears like the beat of a tribal drum. “I, uh, scratched it on Ma’s ring. When I was grabbing for the water.”
“I knew it!” Zeke crowed. Keir didn’t have to look up to know he was pumping his fist in celebration. “You wept like a babe, didn’t you? Guess who owes—”
“No, he didn’t,” Vera interrupted, her voice low and steady. “And he didn’t crawl from the pool on his hands and knees begging for water, either.”
Keir marveled at her control. If he didn’t know any better, he’d think nothing was amiss.
“Teta V!” Zeke gasped in mock affront. “That was below the baldric.”
“Keep calling me Auntie, and see what happens,” she shot back, slipping into their normal banter as easily as pulling on a cloak. “I’m not some shriveled old woman.”
Zeke chuckled. “I—”
“How was it?” Keir prompted, changing the subject.
“Utterly uneventful,” Zeke pouted. “Miss Priss won’t even get the teensiest bit soshed.”
“Smart girl,” Vera said in a dry tone. Finished tying the fabric around Keir’s head, she squeezed his shoulder and stepped back.
Keir took a deep breath and looked up at Zeke. His friend was clad in his best trousers and a new leather vest, and his normally shaggy blond hair was actually combed. “Don’t you look pretty,” he teased.
Zeke’s mouth fell open.
Vyt. Keir’s gaze darted to his mother. A pained look crossed her face, quickly replaced with a smile.
“You sneaky bastard!” Zeke clapped him on the back so hard he lurched forward. “I bust a nut to get here, and this is how you repay me?”
“Watch your tongue,” Vera chided half-heartedly. “You’re in a holy space.”
“But his eyes are blue!” Zeke picked her up and spun her around. “My best friend is going to be a warrior!”
“Put me down!” Vera smacked him on the shoulder, laughter in her voice.
Watching them made a lump rise in Keir’s throat. When his mother commanded him to choose, he’d simply reacted. He hadn’t meant to conceal his normal, brown eye.
“Our quarter hasn’t seen a warrior in over a decade!” Zeke gestured madly. “Wait’ll I tell the boys! They won’t believe it!”
“No!” Keir threw up a hand. “Don’t say anything!”
Zeke looked confused. “Why the hell not?”
“I want to be the one to tell them.” Keir tried to smile, but it felt strained.
“Why are you upset?” Zeke frowned. “This is the most exciting thing that’s happened in years. I’d give my left— ” his gaze darted to Vera and back again. “Let’s just say I’d be willing to part with something quite valuable to be in your position.”
Keir shook his head. “Just shocked, is all.” Eager to steer the conversation in a better direction, he added jokingly, “Now the ladies really won’t bother to look your way when I’m around.”
“Oh yeah? Wanna bet?” Zeke crouched down and threw his shoulder against Keir’s side, an invitation to wrestle.
“We both know you’ll lose. Might as well hand over your crux now.” Keir reached around to put him in a headlock, but the response was rote. The last thing he wanted to do was celebrate.
Zeke twisted out of his grasp. “C’mon!” He bobbed his head and threw a few fake punches. “Let’s hit the taverns!”
“Not so fast,” Vera cut in. Turning to Keir, she said, “You need to home and take care of that eye first.”
“Yes, Majka.” Keir dipped his head in acquiescence, thankful for her quick thinking.
“Fine.” Zeke rolled his eyes. “But there is a word for men who can’t leave their mama’s sides.” He smiled wickedly and bolted for the tunnel before Vera could swat him. “Meet me at Tully’s!” he shouted as he ran away.
Keir took a steadying breath. Blew it out. “Thanks.”
“What else are majkas for?” she teased, but Keir could tell her bravado was fading. Her smile fell away as soon as she turned to gather their things, her movements slow and strained, as if the excitement of the past few minutes had drained the last of her strength.
Keir hurriedly changed into dry clothes, heart heavy as a stone in his chest. Never before had he kept something so important from his best friend. Tentatively he touched the bandage, making sure it hadn’t shifted.
“Ready?” Vera asked from the doorway.
“No,” Keir answered honestly, “but we can leave.”