Second book in The Ever Spirits series.
There are things that were stolen from me.
From my memory, my essence.
From my very heart.
A day of bliss, a dozen hours, hundreds of nights, and thousands of heartbeats.
All in countless breathless moments.
Beginning with the first, in a sunlit but silent corner of a teeming market, where I picked a weapon…
The vendor eyed me as if he knew a secret.
Silver-haired like all Deminians, he hovered in the shrouded shadows of his stall, flanked left and right by brightly polished blades, feathered helms, and worked gauntlets that glimmered on display. Their metal winked like steel demons hung from the nails impaling the wooden slats around him. Between us, curved daggers lounged on the counter.
I had stopped at this warrior’s paradise in a sunlit corner of the crowded market while Deminians murmured and rustled their way behind me, their perfumes steeping the air. One woman exuded the sweet fragrance of cloves, another the cinnamon-spice of rhubarb pie; a man brought heavenly ginger, and the man beyond him the freshness of thyme.
Those perfumes feasted on sensation, clouding the air and flavoring my every breath, one of the reasons I always loved Papa bringing me on his monthly trip to the Demin markets to sell his yield.
Today, though, on my sixteenth birthday, I’d begged freedom from peddling at our stall—and received my wish.
Papa had delivered his customary stern warning with a more softened smile—You’re a woman now, Alynah, and you know the rule: don’t get involved with them—then he’d loosed me like a bright-plumed bird to rove the market.
And I had roved.
I’d chased the trail of scarlet and gold silks, the shiny slips that beckoned from ribbon sellers’ stands. I’d followed the teasing traces of hot caramel on crisp apples to stalls where those crimson, caramel-doused globes gleamed under domes of glass. Grinning bakers sold glazed honey cakes to silver-haired children while sugar spinners offered up sparkling clouds of pink confections.
Not that I could purchase anything. The aromas, though, transported me to a future where I might stroll here with my husband—whoever he might be—and he would purchase me sweets with an indulgent smile and a sweet kiss. Whatever you’d like, my love.
Perhaps it was a boring dream.
Perhaps the inexplicable enticement of this stand had captured me harder and drawn me here instead.
To the unassuming dagger lying beside an array of ornate swords.
It didn’t belong here, its blade dimmed from disregard, the glimmer of the few sapphires embedded in its faded golden hilt subdued.
But then, I didn’t belong here, either: an Ilinian farm girl in muddied leggings, tunic, boots, and copper hair. I didn’t even belong in this rich crowd of Deminians in quality leather and vibrant surcoats soaked in indigo and lemon dyes. They burst with color like gemstones on a dirty street while I blended with the cobbles, like a dingy cloth beneath their jeweled splendor.
I shouldn’t be at this stand—I couldn’t wield a weapon—but neither could I step away. Something knotted up my frivolous mood and imbued me with a tension I could not explain. It settled in my belly, unwholesome, unwelcome, and the whispers…
A league of otherworldly murmurs gathered on the air, intensifying, blending with…
No. My imagination played tricks.
The vendor surveyed me in silence, likely extrapolating my desires through the purse of my lips and the shift of my eyelids, as all hagglers did. “Our overlord’s wife used that dagger to save her life, you know.”
His words startled me enough that the murmurs in the air fell away. “Your overlord’s wife?” That was a preposterous lie, and it pricked me that he’d think I would believe it. My scoff must have shown in the way I drew myself up. “A dagger wielded by the queen of Demin would hardly end up in a paltry monthly market on the Ilinian border.”
“Wouldn’t it?” The vendor, exuding enigma, stroked his neatly cropped beard.
Unimpressed, I crossed my arms and ensured that skepticism rode every angle of my smirking mouth.
Not that I understood why he was wasting time with me when a Deminian warrior was perusing the swords on the other side of the stand. He surely provided a far greater opportunity for sale than a foreign Ilinian girl whose Papa had given her no money—because Papa probably had no money here.
But the vendor merely cocked his head to the side like a bird, his eyes cagey, his not-quite-smile making him appear shrewd. “Why would our queen keep it? Would you keep a blade that had slain your family? A betrayer of your deepest heart who had forced your hand to save your life? Someone you loved?”
“I’ve never heard of an attack on Demin’s queen.” And I listened to all the tales about the royalty of Demin: their intrigues, the vicious fights. And they did fight, for even the sons and sometimes daughters of noble families were taught swordplay in this brutal nation, because not even birth in a royal palace exempted them from learning a blade.
The vendor’s grin broadened behind his silver beard. “Have you a moment for the tale?”
I touched my fingertip to the frayed lining of his display table, concentrating briefly on the customers streaming behind me, their voices muted through the back of my shoulders. They each brushed a new scent over my senses: mint, sage, lemon. The fertile scent of plants distilled into fragrance.
I pulled my hand away, decided not to waste time. “I’ve no coin to spare if you wish to sell.”
“That dagger is not for sale.”
“It is a gift.” The vendor inclined his head toward it. “Would you like it?”
It unbalanced me. “I couldn’t… couldn’t accept—”
“Perhaps you must.” He straightened into correct posture. “This dagger has been searching for its next mistress for a long time.”
I frowned. He spoke of the dagger as sentient. And his attentiveness began to become unsettling. Unease slid along my spine. “That mistress can’t be me.”
“I’m just a simple girl.”
“Are you?” His eyes flicked to my coppery hair that streamed down my shoulders like molten red gold where sunlight struck.
My one vanity. I was prone to flaunting my hair’s matchless vibrancy, for supposedly only the Ilinian overlord and his daughter possessed similar hair of such blazing coppery hue.
Having met neither overlord nor princess, I could hardly vouch that my coppery red crown matched theirs, although based on the rumors that meandered into my home village far south of the capital, I never wished to meet them, for the reports carried heartless stories. Stories of a cruel princess and her power-hungry lover; of a young queen, the overlord’s new wife, with a tongue that could slash hope; and of the overlord himself, a worthy model for his malicious, grown daughter. His only softness was his obsessive love for his new queen. He strewed at her feet all the indulgences and extravagances the lady desired, and whispered accounts claimed that he wished to oust his spiteful daughter with a new babe planted in his sharp-tongued wife.
Now this vendor eyed my hair as if believing I was an illicit Ilinian princess disguised as an ordinary girl traipsing about this Deminian market.
Let him think it.
The warrior on the other side of the stand lifted a sword. “This one.”
The vendor held out his palm without dragging his gaze from me. “Five golds.”
“Five…?” The warrior muttered but dug his hand into his pouch. Coins clinked into the vendor’s palm.
The warrior swept past—and stopped at my back, his head bent so close to my shoulder that I went as still as a rat before a hawk. “That dagger is meant for a queen, girl. Make sure you don’t end up ruling a shit world.”
I swiveled toward him, but the warrior was already sinking into the mass of Deminians at my back, his cape sweeping around his body and… taking him into thin air.
No. I shook my head. It was a trick of the daylight, the sun in my eyes.
The vendor’s smile was strained, his hands empty of coin and folded politely over his slight belly, just above the brown belt over his tunic.
Where had he ensconced the five golds so fast? Did Deminians wield ancient magic that hid coins in a fold of air?
Or could they weave an enchantment that allowed a colossal warrior to spiral into nothing in a crowd of passersby?
“There still exist objects of magic in our kingdoms,” the vendor murmured as if he’d read my thoughts. “Though they are few and far between, they are there, if one knows in which shadowed nooks to find them.”
“Like your shadowed nook?” Attempting insolence, I cocked my copper brows at him even though my heart beat in my throat. That warrior couldn’t have simply vanished.
I twisted around again, scanning the crowd from face to face, but no broad shoulders rose above the swarm. I swung back.
“See you any shadows here?” The vendor gestured at his stand.
“Perhaps the shadows of a salesman’s deceit?”
This tart belligerence earned me a twitch of his lips beneath his beard, something almost a smile. He bowed to acknowledge my jibe. “Aside from my wiles, no shadows lurk here. Not even in your eyes.”
The word hung so thick on the air, I could swear he’d spoken it although his mouth remained straight.
I’d had enough. I was frittering away a bright day playing word games with an illusionist.
I moved to step away.
But I couldn’t. My boots wouldn’t budge, my feet rooted to the cobbles. Through the thickening air and clouds of dirt, I barely smelled the hot caramel, the iron forge. The vague hammering of the smith barely rang above the garbled words of the throng now streaming past seemingly from a great distance. The thrum of hundreds of voices muted and faded away, passersby no longer knocking into my elbows, not even noticing me locked here in this cut-off pocket of the world.
Panic surged in my breast. “What spell have you cast?”
The vendor’s eyes shone. He gripped the counter displaying his wares and hunkered forward. “No one has noticed that dagger for eight years. I’ve traversed every corner of Demin, and no one has taken a second glance. But you? A girl not even looking its way, and suddenly you veer aside, and here you stop, riveted as though it is already yours.”
“I have no coin.”
“The blade is not paid for in coin.”
“Its cost is a life.”
“I won’t give my life!”
“It’s not your life that will pay.”
“Even worse! I’ll make no one pay!”
“The price comes with betrayal. Our queen plunged it into her own brother’s heart when he tried to slay her. Someone will betray you, and then you will strike.”
I wrenched at my feet. “Let me go now!”
“That’s not me; that’s your fate.” He raised his hands, his palms bearing tattoos of ever-watching eyes that glowed a fiery blue. “Take the dagger.”
The blade slid closer—by arcane power—and the eyes on his palms shone fiercer—magic—and my fingertips tingled like lightning bolts under my skin.
I couldn’t stop my hand from grasping the dagger’s hilt, and a shocking rightness jolted through me; relief sank in my bones; my feet loosened. With my anchor to the cobblestones yanked free, I staggered back.
The vendor slumped and lowered his hands, sounding exhausted. “The blade cannot cut you, ever. Even if someone turns it on you, any slash they make will slice them instead.”
I couldn’t fathom his words. “What do you mean?”
“The dagger cannot be turned against you. Anyone who tries will find it will cut their own flesh when they attempt to mar yours.”
I stared at it resting in my hand, its weight lighter than expected. And there, right before my eyes, its dullness washed clean like water sliding across the blade until it gleamed as silver as Deminian hair, until the sapphires embedded in its hilt invited my attention from beds of brightening gold.
Within seconds, the weapon became something fit for a queen, only it lay in my grubby grip, the dirt under my nails incongruous with this extravagant craftsmanship.
How had I, mere moments before, belonged to the normalcy of the crowded market? It continued to stream so far away and yet so close to this bubble of mystery.
“This is only a dream,” I murmured.
“You can hope.” The vendor rubbed his eyelids. “But that dagger brings fate, not dreams.” His visible loss of aura and conviction unsettled me: the slithery salesman in him almost apologetic, as if he’d stepped into things beyond his comfort and found them not what he had counted on.
“The tattoos.” I gestured shakily. “Where did you get them?”
His eyebrows scrunched together. “Tattoos?”
“On your palms.”
His face went slowly blank, and he tilted up his hands, showing un-inked palms. “What tattoos?”
“They were there.”
“Eyes. You had tattooed eyes watching me take up the dagger.”
Curling his fingertips inward, he drew his hands away, and drew his gaze away, as well. “The spirits are watching you.”
Time became a slippery thing.
I was running, fleeing the magic, the spirits, the unknown, my fear.
My lungs heaved, my heart hammered, frantic, in my chest, and the dagger was clutched in my hand.
I ended up at the edge of the market, my boots skidding to a halt on the dusty road, near the forest that loomed beyond the village border. Here, the trees shivered in the sun in vivid shades of green and orange, purple and scarlet.
The vendor’s words had jumbled my mind. The spirits are watching you.
The ever spirits? The everlasting spirits that inhabited the mortal sphere but were intangible, untouchable, unheard, and unseen by human eye?
They didn’t exist.
I bolted again, with no destination but the forest.
Its pure majesty breathed around me, an exhalation over my overheated cheeks, my fleeing figure. Its leaves crunched like bones beneath my feet.
I didn’t understand a dagger that could not be turned on me.
A lie? A trick?
I lurched against a tree, propped my sleeved arm against the bark, and pressed the blade to my skin.
It never touched. Something like an invisible shield kept it from making contact.
Spirits. I sucked in a breath, braced myself for pain, and slashed with force at my forearm.
The blade scraped only the same invisible shield and made no mark on my flesh at all.
It didn’t make sense. Magic objects did not simply fall into worthless young women’s hands.
The vanishing warrior had said this was meant for a queen.
Its cost is a life.
The price comes with betrayal.
The vendor’s tattoos. The ones that vanished.
This couldn’t be real. I would wake any second.
A nearby fox perked up its ears while observing my alarm, its eyes aglow like the vendor’s tattoos. A blackbird’s caw swooped near in flight, and the breeze from its feathers kissed my lips.
The dagger’s gold hilt flashed in the slanting rays of sun through yellow and scarlet leaves.
Mine. Whatever that meant.
I shoved it into my boot and ran again, aware of its weight against my calf shifting with every step, every impact.
I sprinted faster, aimless, while the trees around me stretched out their branches above like arms. They were shedding summer’s mantle, disrobing for autumn in a shower of gold and violet and scarlet. Sweetly blooming woodland mingled with the scent of crushed greenery, and the leaves of sugar-ginger trees fluttered past my cheeks.
As I dashed past, grazing fawns offered me dewy gazes, bounding rabbits leaped into cubbyholes, and birds took wing on the afternoon light.
I ran until my lungs labored and my temples dotted with perspiration.
I burst from the forest—
And sunshine flung brilliance into my eyes.
I threw up my hands, squinting and halting, clumsy, and inhaled the scents of grass and baking bread.
Inside the colored spots dancing in my sun-flecked vision spread a scene from a fairy tale.
A golden field rippled in undulating waves of wheat around a picturesque white farmhouse. Cerulean floral designs framed the windows in whimsical curlicues and petals that twined under the rim of the roof.
Homey. Sweet. Its normalcy far from any notion of Deminian magic. So lovely my heart strained toward it.
Unbidden, I imagined myself in that cobalt doorway while a silver-haired Deminian strode across the golden field, hand in hand with a child whose hair impossibly blended the silver of his with the coppery red of mine. He would look up at me and—
“What do you find so fascinating?”
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