Thursday, November 30, 2017

#Review - Sea of Strangers by Erica Cameron #YALit #Fantasy @EntangledTeen

Series: The Ryogan Chronicles # 2Format: Paperback, 384 pagesRelease Date: December 5, 2017Publisher: Entangled: TeenSource: Publisher 
Genre: Young Adult / Fantasy
Know your enemy if you want to survive…
The only way for Khya to get her brother back alive is to kill Varan—the immortal ruler who can’t be killed. But not even Varan knew what he was doing when he perverted magic and humanity to become immortal.
Khya’s leading her group of friends and rebels into the mountains that hold Varan’s secrets, but if risking all their lives is going to be worth it, she has to give up everything else—breaking the spell that holds her brother captive and jeopardizing her deepening relationship with Tessen, the boy who has been by turns her rival and refuge since her brother disappeared. Immortality itself might be her only answer, but if that’s where Khya has to go, she can’t ask Tessen or her friends to follow.

Sea of Strangers is the second installment in author Erica Cameron's The Ryogan Chronicles. Sea of Strangers is the follow up to Island of Exiles which was released earlier this yearThe Ryogan Chronicles is a diverse, gritty fantasy with multiple complex cultures, and high-tension romance. Sea of Strangers picks up several weeks after the action packed finale to The Island of Exiles. The protagonist of this series is 17-year old Khya, a resident of a country called Shiara. 

Khya is a fykina mage and a soldier who was trained to protect her country against all dangers. Khya, who may be the most powerful mage in generations, has the ability to create wards to keep her squad mates protected. After learning a shocking secret in the previous installment, and then having her brother taken away from her, Khya becomes convinced that she must find a way to break Varan of his immortality at all costs. Khya and her friends found an ally in Osshi, who offered his assistance. 

It's where the story picks up. Khya and her friends are on a ship heading into the unknown. They must trust that her new allies will get them safely to the land called Ryogan. With her brother's life on the line, Khya must trust some new allies she and her group meet along the way. Most notably Lo'a, a sort of gypsy who travels by caravan along with her family. Lo'a teaches Khya about Ryogo's magic, and becomes a staunch friend and maybe more. But, this land has a long memory when it comes to Varan and the other 11 immortals he helped create. Including Chio and Tsua who Khya met in the previous novel. 

Khya and her allies will face a difficult terrain, wacky weather, prejudices, a changing environment, and soldiers chasing them at every avenue. But, it is the Ryogo's who will suffer if Varan makes good on his threat. They have no clue what is coming for them. It will be up to Khya and her allies to stand up and be counted, or fall be the way side. 

**One of the things I liked most about this book, besides the ever present challenges and action, and Khya being thrust into a leadership roll, is that the author actually spends time laying out who her characters are and what abilities they have. You can find this glossary at the beginning of the book, as well as the end. This is a series with both racial diversity and cultural diversity in the way certain prejudices are aimed towards people who are different.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

#Review - Final Fall by Heather W. Petty #YALit #Mystery

Series: Lock & Mori # 3
Format: E-Book, 208 pages
Release Date: November 28, 2017
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Source: Edelweiss 
Genre: YA / Mystery / Thriller

Sherlock Holmes and Miss James “Mori” Moriarty started at the top of their game—so they have that much farther to fall in this epic conclusion to the Lock & Mori trilogy, perfect for fans of Maureen Johnson and Sherlock.
You know their names. Now discover their beginnings. 
Mori is out for revenge. Imprisoned in the English countryside, with her brothers held as leverage, she’s never felt angrier or more helpless. When an opportunity for escape arises, Mori takes it and flees back to the streets of London, where she is finally able to plot the demise of her recently freed father and his cohorts. 
But after a bittersweet reunion with Lock, she discovers that he may not be the ally he once was. In the face of blackmail, threats, and Lock’s noble attempts to thwart her crusade, Mori has an impossible decision to make.
Can Mori wash the blood from her hands and walk away? Or will her final fall from grace be the end of everyone she loves?

Final Fall is the third and final installment in Heather W. Petty's Lock & Mori trilogy. As the story opens, Mori is Alice Stoke's captive having been taken from London to the English countryside. She's kept in a cage away from her brothers who are being used as leverage to keep Mori in line. With Alice's real threat of taking her brothers to America without her, Mori must bide her time and scheme her way to freedom. Alice needs a soldier to be her sword against those like James Moriarty. 

That means teaching Mori how to survive and that leaves a new character named Trent to teach her. But, when the time finally comes to escape, Mori takes it and returns to her home in London. Revenge remains at the top of Mori's list. She must find a way to end the threat known as James Moriarty, her father and his corrupt gang of cops who made Mori and her brothers lives a living hell. But, she also must find a way to deal with a certain Sherlock Holmes who is on the wrong side of what Mori plans to do. 

Even though Final Fall is a rather short book at 206 pages, there is a whole lot of action within its pages. This is Mori's story not Lock's. There's no way to twist it to become Lock's story. Even when Lock does show up, he is just an obstacle standing in the way Mori's plans. A look at what Mori's life could have been if she had different parents. Mori will do things and things will happen quickly. Things might even shock you considering how young Mori really is. But, never forget what happened to her and her brothers at the hands of an abusive father and corrupt cops who looked the other way.

You want to give hope that Mori won't walk down the road into darkness. You want to give hope that Lock can change her mind from going full vigilante. But, what would the point of writing an origin story if Lock and Mori ended up as the good guys when all is said and done? You have to know the history between Sherlock and Moriarty to understand that you really can't give either of them a HEA. Not really. Even though they could be brilliant together, there is too much baggage on Mori's shoulders. 

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

#Review - The Forever Ship by Francesca Haig #Science Fiction

Series: The Fire Sermon # 3
Format: Hardcover, 400 pages
Release Date: December 5, 2017
Publisher: Gallery Books
Source: Edelweiss
Genre: Science Fiction / Apocalyptic & Post-Apocalyptic

Book Three in the critically acclaimed The Fire Sermon trilogy—The Hunger Games meets Cormac McCarthy’s The Road in this richly imagined post-apocalyptic series by award-winning poet Francesca Haig.
Haig's prose is gorgeous and engaging, particularly when she describes the desolate landscape, now peppered with ruins from the Before. Fans of dystopias will appreciate this adventure-filled yet character-focused tale that offers hope and explores (in a refreshingly nuanced way) the moral complexities involved in defeating an oppressive and backward government structure" (Booklist, starred review).

The Forever Ship is the third and final installment in author Francesca Haig's The Fire Sermon trilogy. This book picks up right where The Map of Bones left off. Haig has created a world that is 400 years in the future. The Earth has turned primitive following a nuclear fire that laid waste to civilization and nature. Though the radiation fallout has ended, for some unknowable reason every person is born with a twin. Of each pair one is an Alpha - physically perfect in every way - and the other an Omega burdened with deformity, small or large.

Surprising, the twins are always a boy and a girl. Whenever one dies, the other will as well. The series protagonist, Cass, is an Omega burdened with psychic foresight. Her sight allows her to see a future with yet another bomb blast thanks to her own brother Zach, and the Councilwoman known as the General. Cass has joined a struggling rebellion with those like Piper (Omega) and his sister Zoe (Alpha). When we last left Cass and this group, a ship called the Rosalind had just arrived along with a woman named Paloma. 

Paloma comes from a place called the Scattered Islands or for those like Cass and the Omega's, Elsewhere. Elsewhere is like Nevernever. It has never been seen, & there have been people struggling to find it for years. It has also become something more of a bedtime story than reality. But, with Paloma's arrival, everything changes. The rumor now becomes hope. The hope of finally curing the plague called the twinning once and for ever. But, will Cass and her allies be able to stop her brother and the General from destroying it? 

Cass is distracted for most of this story with visions of yet another blast thanks to the fact that the General has found a way to recreate the weapons that will send a nuclear bomb towards Elsewhere. She has no idea how to stop it since the General holds all the cards. Cass's journey hasn't exactly been an easy one, and one could get frustrated at her lack of progress as a character without understanding her first 13 years of her life. From branded with a Omega sign on her head after finding out that she's a seer, to living 4 years in captivity under the Confessor's brutality until she finally escaped. To discovering the ARK and and even more deadly secret that she does her best to stop.

Her relationship with her brother isn't an easy one to read about, mostly because he's like a member of the German Third Reich who wants to keep the status quo while subjugating the Omega's to tanks where they will never be allowed freedom again. Zack, aka the Reformer, is really a piece of work and you can't help but having zero remorse for anything that he's done to Cass or anyone else. Thanks to the Council member known as the Ringmaster, Cass and her rebellion may have hope in stopping the General's plans to destroy Elsewhere if they can survive.

In the end, The Forever Ship is filled with twists and turns and challenges. It ends on a remarkably unremarkable final chapter where I would never have guessed that Haig would end her series in this manner. In one way, it makes perfect sense with everything that has happened over the course of three books. In another, one could say that it might have been better had Haig gone a different direction. A direction that I won't spoil. I really did like the addition of Paloma and it's because of her own insecurities and abnormalities that haven't slowed her down. Paloma's addition gives readers an entirely different look at what may have happened to the rest of the world after the bombs fell. 

Monday, November 27, 2017

#Blog Tour/Review - Flame in the Dark by Faith Hunter #Urban #Fantasy

Welcome to Gizmo's Tour Stop for Flame in the Dark by Faith Hunter. Today, I have a short story and a tour wide giveaway to share with you. 

Series: Soulwood # 3
Format: Paperback, 352 pages
Release Date: December 5, 2017
Publisher: ACE/ROC
Source: Publisher
Genre: Urban Fantasy
ISBN: 978-0451473332
Mass Market Paperback $7.99

Nell Ingram has always known she was different. Since she was a child, she’s been able to feel and channel ancient powers from deep within the earth. When she met Jane Yellowrock, her entire life changed, and she was recruited into PsyLED—the Homeland Security division that polices paranormals. But now her newly formed unit is about to take on its toughest case yet.

A powerful senator barely survives an assassination attempt that leaves many others dead—and the house he was visiting burns to the ground. Invisible to security cameras, the assassin literally disappears, and Nell’s team is called in. As they track a killer they know is more—or less—than human, they unravel a web of dark intrigue and malevolent motives that tests them to their limits and beyond.

Flame in the Dark is the third installment in author Faith Hunter's
Soulwood series. Special Agent Nell Ingram is a probationary paranormal investigator for PsyLED. She has found a home among Unit Eighteen which includes team leader Rick LaFleur (were-leopard), T. Laine (witch), Occam (were-panther), Jojo (IT Specialist), and Tandy (empath). As the story begins, someone is targeting an influential US Senator who is pro-paranormal rights and his family. What's curious is that at every incident involving the Senator or his family, there are also incidences of fire at the scene. 

Since this is a high profile case, Nell and team are joined by Soul, an Arcencial (rainbow dragon), who is now Assistant Director of PsyLED. Soul has now been involved in both Jane Yellowrock's series as well as Nell's. She is a character that you want to avoid making angry at all costs. Between the last book, Curse on the Land, and this story, things have changed quite a bit for the team. Rick, who is now able to shift during the full moon thanks to Nell, has arrived back in Knoxville after spending time with Jane and her team. One could say that he is emotionally bereft and out on a limb and still isn't over how things ended between them.

Meanwhile, Nell is starting to fully understand her abilities. Abilities that allow her to track and use land to help solve investigations. Abilities that allow her to heal herself whenever she gets badly injured by using the land. Abilities that allow her to claim the land using her own blood. She's also physically changing. Let me repeat what I already said about Nell. Just because Nell is a former Church woman who tends to fall back on her church speak, doesn't mean that she's not learned or smart. When given the chance, she is more than capable of figuring out things without people on her team having to explain things to her repeatedly.

The author tempts readers by revealing what Jane has told Nell about what she is. It's also runs in her sister Mindy aka Mud's veins. This dynamic should be interesting going forward. This book is also filled with curious relationship dynamics. If you've Cold Reign, you know that there is trouble on the horizon which is affecting every single Mithran in the US. I mentioned this because Ming of Glass's scion Yummy does a bit of a catch up with Nell and I loved their dynamics. I loved the fact that they could temper themselves long enough to work pretty solidly together. I also loved Yummy's nickname for Nell. Nell & Occam seem to be drifting into uncharted territory for Nell. Occam still owes Nell a date, while her own family is pushing her towards someone else. 

I'm rooting for Nell and Occam since they're not human and don't have to worry about one of the grindylow's killing them if they end up covered in blood. While I wasn't a fan of the additional interest in Nell, you can't ignore it. Not when her family is still part of the Church she left behind. While I was happy that Nell finally let her family in on her secret, I will never accept polygamy. It is abhorrent. I don't believe that a 12-year old child is capable of making adult decisions when it comes to being forced into marrying a much, much older man for his second or third wife. The public is fixated on sexual abuse claims on the news these days, but why are we ignoring what is happening to these young girls?

The following is a short story featuring Occam. I hope you enjoy it! 

How Occam Got His Name
serial short story
By Faith Hunter

Part Four
Getting far enough away from Dickens, Texas to see the night sky and the meteor shower wasn’t hard. Wasn’t like Dickens had many streetlights or nothing. The town had two hundred-eighty people in it, with about as many deserted buildings as families. It was hot, and miserable during the six months of winter and he’d heard his daddy say it was hotter than Satan’s anvil the other six. In August, even at night, the heat seemed to suck the life right out of him.
But the night sky made the heat and the trek worth it all. The black expanse was brilliant with stars, millions of millions, put there by the hand of God, daddy said, put there by a Big Bang according to his teacher—who got in trouble for telling a scientific principle in a Creationist school district.
Trace kinda liked the idea of blending the two, because that would explain the light show of meteors streaking overhead. He’d called it God’s Big Bang Fart. But only to Wayman, and not at home, where his daddy might use his fists to drive the devil outta his soul. Six meteors dashed across the sky, spreading out from one another as if they had broken off a bigger piece.
“God’s farting again,” Wayman said, laughing.
Trace laughed too and made farting sounds with his mouth.
The meteor shower was supposed to be brightest after four a.m. which was after the sickle moon set, but they had plans to be back at the tent and the bikes by then and it was a long hike. He wished he’d brought the cooler of chili. He was hungry and his stomach rumbled.
Mama made the best chili in the state, and she was sharing her secret chili recipe with him, trading out chores for cooking lessons. Mama—Miz Lizzie to the church members—was a saint, to put with daddy. He’d heard one of the church ladies say so. Trace didn’t know much about being a saint, but mama could sing real pretty on Sundays, and she sure could cook.
The numbers of meteors increased, streaking across the sky, some big, some tiny, gone in an eyeblink.
About the time the silver slice of moon was as high overheard as it got this time of year, and the meteors were coming fast and furious, prickles started running up and down the back of Trace’s neck. Maybe them rattlesnakes he’d thought about on the trip out here. Or the bobcat paws they had seen. Bigger than his hand.
Trace sat up, uncertain what he’d heard. Or sensed. He picked up the flashlight and his shotgun.

He flicked on his flashlight and slowly showed it around them. Rocks, sand, prickly grasses. Until his flash caught something golden and silver on the small hillock across the wash from them. Two somethings. They went away. Reappeared. He steadied his light on the golden silver things. And realized they were eyes.

Amazon | Audible | Barnes & Noble | Kobo

New York Times and USAToday bestselling fantasy author Faith Hunter was born in Louisiana and raised all over the south. Altogether she has 40+ books in print under the names Gary Hunter, Gwen Hunter, and Faith Hunter. As Faith, she writes two contemporary Urban Fantasy series: the Jane Yellowrock series, featuring a Cherokee skinwalker who hunts rogue vampires, and the Soulwood series, featuring earth magic user Nell Ingram. Her Rogue Mage novels are a dark, post-apocalyptic, fantasy series featuring Thorn St. Croix, a stone mage. The role playing game based on the series, is ROGUE MAGE, RPG.
Twitter: @hunterfaith
Yellowrock Securities:  
Gwen Hunter:

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Tuesday, November 21, 2017

#Review - The Scarecrow Queen by Melinda Salisbury #YALit #Fantasy

Series: The Sin Eater's Daughter # 3
Format: Paperback, 376 pages
Release Date: October 31, 2017
Publisher: Scholastic Press
Source: Library
Genre: Young Adult / Fairy Tales & Folklore

The stunning conclusion to Edgar Award nominee Melinda Salisbury's internationally bestselling The Sin Eater's Daughter trilogy.The rebellion is in peril. The dangerous Sleeping Prince, once thought to be nothing more than a fairy tale, has awoken from his enchanted sleep and is set on vengeance. As he tightens his hold on the kingdoms of Lormere and Tregellan, the net closes in on the ragged band of rebels desperately trying to defeat him. After surviving their harrowing journey, Twylla and Errin are separated, leaving them isolated, and running out of time. The final battle is coming, and Aurek will stop at nothing to keep the throne . . . forever. Explosive, rich, and darkly addictive, The Scarecrow Queen will lure you into a startlingly-original magical world you'll never want to leave.

The Scarecrow Queen is the third and final installment in author Melinda Salisbury's The Sin Eater's Daughter Trilogy. This story picks up right where The Sleeping Prince left off. This is a different sort of story. The author intermingles narratives between Twylla, and Errin. Twylla, who survived the brutal attack on the Conclave by the Sleeping Prince gets the first part of the story, while Errin, who finds herself at the mercy of the Sleeping Prince, gets the second part. The third part is mostly Twylla's.

Each has a fight on their hands. Twylla who is marked for death by Aurek because her blood can kill her, and Errin who is alone trying to find a way to bring down Aurek. If anyone can discover a way to defeat Aurek, Errin is the most likely candidate. Let's start out with Twylla, who is now the Sin Eater of Lormere after the events of the previous installment. Twylla is an entirely different character from the first installment. She refuses to accept the title of Sin Eater, and instead focuses on surviving. She is a survivor who has managed to stay alive despite horrible odds from book one forward. 

I had a few minor issues with Twylla in the first installment, but found myself impressed that she's able to pull up her boot straps, and gather a group of like minded individuals to fight against Aurek. Her group includes Hope, Nia, & Kirin. With help from Hope, Twylla becomes the groups leader and pulls even more people to her cause. I especially liked the Red Rising particulars that Salisbury creates. One could actually think about the movie Red Dawn, where a group of kids fought back against foreign invaders who took their homes and families. Twylla really stands up and becomes the leader that I have been hoping for since we learned that she was being groomed to become Queen.

Meanwhile, Errin has struck up a nice relationship with Merek, the real King of Lormere. Nobody knows who Merek is except Errin who is only alive because of Silas. The same Silas whose blood is used to keep Aurek in his Elixir. Errin is brilliant and intelligent and has found herself in a situation where she has no control over her destiny or even her life thanks to Aurek. Her family has been twisted by Aurek. Her brother Lief, is a traitor, her mother is too far gone, and she has no idea whether or not anyone survived the destruction of the Conclave. Even though Twylla is the leader of this group, Errin is the one who holds the key to defeating Aurek.

Finale's can be the bane of my existence. But, Salisbury really did her best to wrap up things in a manner that really keeps the reader turning the pages and, above all, makes the story entertaining. My only disagreement with this story is the angst that existed between Twylla and her once fiance Merek. They are both strong willed individuals which means that more often than not, they will butt heads until one or the other realizes how ridiculous they are being. It is apparent that Salisbury was trying to send some sort of a message without the Happy ending that most readers enjoy. 

I can honestly say the most heartbreaking parts of this story were Errin's. If you were a fan of Errin's in the previous installment, I think you will be a bit saddened that she doesn't get a bit of her own payback. This book is a bit on the dark side. It has to be considering everything that Aurek has done since ripping Lormere apart and brutalizing anyone who stood in his way. Can villains be forgiven for their trespasses? Too bad we can't ask Lief what his thoughts are on the subject.

Early #Review W/Excerpt - Ever the Brave by Erin Summerill #YALit #Fantasy

Series: A Clash of Kingdoms Novel # 2
Format: E-Book, 464 pages
Release Date: December 5, 2017
Publisher: HMH Books for Young Readers
Source: NetGalley
Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy

Ever the Divided. Ever the Feared. Ever the Brave.
After saving King Aodren with her newfound Channeler powers, Britta only wants to live a peaceful life in her childhood home. Unfortunately, saving the King has created a tether between them she cannot sever, no matter how much she'd like to, and now he's insisting on making her a noble lady. And there are those who want to use Britta’s power for evil designs. If Britta cannot find a way to harness her new magical ability, her life—as well as her country—may be lost.
The stakes are higher than ever in the sequel to Ever the Hunted, as Britta struggles to protect her kingdom and her heart.

Ever the Brave is the second and final installment in author Erin Summerill's Clash of Kingdom's duology. In this installment, the author has chosen to feature three distinct characters to tell her story; Cohen Mackay, Britta Flannery, and King Aodren. Let's talk about Britta. After saving Aodren's life at the conclusion of Ever the Hunted, Britta finds herself linked to the king, aware of his presence, and his well-being, and that connection is hard to ignore. Britta hasn't really come to terms with her growing magic, & what she's capable of.

Her fear of being around other people is still an issue as well. It doesn't matter that she saved Aodren's life and is a hero for doing so, the people still don't like her because she's part Shaerdan on her mother's side. It doesn't matter that Aodren wants to introduce her as royalty when the noble's despise her for the same reason. It also doesn't help that he heaps presents on Britta that she doesn't want and shows up at her cabin unannounced. Plus, it would take just one person to charge her with being a Channeler, and everything that she's worked hard for, will come crashing down on her head. 

The plus is that she has opened herself up to a friendship with her lady-in-waiting Gillian Tierney. Gillian is adamant at making Britta more impressionable & more ladylike instead of hiding away at her cabin. I talk more about Britta than anyone else in this book because of what her own father taught her. He taught her how to become one of the best trackers and hunters around. He taught her how to ride a horse, use a bow & arrow, but unfortunately he had no clue about how to teach her about magic that has grown stronger. 
Britta is a character after my own heart in one aspect. She loves being in the middle of nowhere with no one else around where she can be who she wants to be without people pointing fingers at her. 

Meanwhile, Cohen, the King's Bounty Hunter, along with his younger brother Finn, have traveled to Shaerdan in search of the woman, Phelia, who was responsible for controlling Aodren. Along the way, Cohen meets Lirra Barrett, the Archtraitors daughter, & discovers that there are dozens of girls missing throughout Shaerdan. Girls who, by all indications, are Channelers. Since magic is outlawed in Malam, the identity of the kidnappers is puzzling. 

Is someone trying to start a war between Malam and Shaerdan? Or, is there something more nefarious about to happen? Cohen isn't a terrible character, but he has hard edges. His relationship with his brother is a nice change from the ever present sibling rivalries that somehow manage to find their way into this genre. Having Lirra around is another change for Cohen who is used to working solo. Cohen's relationship with Britta is one of over-protectiveness and a bit of jealously. Cohen's relationship with Aodren is cold as ice because of the jealously factor. 

I mentioned the third character who is featured already, King Aodren. Aodren is drawn and obsessed with Britta, especially after she saves his life not once, but again in this book which leads to a rather enlightening revelation and the identity of the woman known as Phelia. Aodren's isn't like any other King that you are probably expecting. He actually wants to do away with the antiquated and bigoted law known as the Purge which has seen women of all ages taken from their families and killed just because they wield magic. Aodren, Cohen, and Britta really do get tested to the ultimate in this book. Not only do they have to fight a known enemy, but they also have to deal with the connection that Britta has with Aodren while still loving Cohen. Ugh!

In the end, the last half of this story is by far the best because so many things happen that force all three characters to dig into their very souls and find a way to survive against all odds. I appreciated the introduction of the Channeler Council as well as characters who end up being part of a dangerous move by Lord Jamis and Phelia against the King. I like that the story ends with Britta in a good place, and not just walking out stage left without any hopes of a HEA with either Cohen or Aodren.

A minute spent in a shaerdanian tavern is a minute too long. I motion for Finn to fall behind as the creaky door slams closed, leaving us in the loud, crowded, lantern-lit room. We garner a few glances, but most turn back to their cups. Only a one-eyed cat perched atop an ale barrel keeps my younger brother and me in its sights. I don’t mind the surly types who hang around these places, the wenches with their skirts tied up and colorful shifts showing, and the bawdy songman accompanied by a guitar-plucking fellow. All are rightly pissed—?eyes blurry, smiles toothy, and voices gratingly bright. It’s the smell that gets me every time. The rain in Shaerdan makes scents stronger. Makes taverns a pungent mix of moldy floor planks, vinegar, and fermented despair.
I hold my breath and slide a folded piece of parchment into the pocket on my belt. Finn watches me. He’s seen me pull it out more than a few times in the last month. Probably noticed the action has increased the farther we’ve traveled from Malam.
He knows not to mention it.
Finn and I walk through the tavern and sit at the bar. After the long night and half day of riding, it’s good to rest. If I dropped my forehead into my hands, I’d be asleep in a blink. Tempting if we weren’t so close to the end of the hunt. And if we weren’t still on Shaerdan soil, where being identified as a Malamian will get you gutted. A vision of a pale blond, freckled girl with a smile that has to be earned spurs me on, pierces me with longing.
A card game plays out on the nearest table, Shaerdanian silvers piled high enough to entice hungry onlookers. Pushing away the fatigue, I sit taller. Force my hands to relax, one resting over my left trouser pocket full of coins. My other hand is splayed on the bar. I fight to look the part in this tavern. Mistakes cannot happen today, not when we’re so close to finding Lord Jamis’s mistress.
The barkeep is a big man, no taller than me, but thicker through the gut like he’s packing a barrel of ale. Busy talking to patrons, he gives no heed to Finn or me. Typical tavern kinsmen. They love their gossip as much as a Malamian market-goer.
I scowl in the man’s direction and rap my knuckles on the tacky surface of the bar.
“Coming, coming,” the barkeep grumbles. He moves in front of me, arms resting on the bar between us. His eyes, yellowed whites surrounding black irises, take in my little brother and me. “What’ll ya have?”
This town, Rasimere Crossing, in the remote southern plains of Shaerdan, isn’t one I’ve been to before. Since both countries backed down from the war, tension is mountain high. Harder to navigate too. Hardly a contact in Shaerdan will speak to me without drawing a sword. Yesterday, a barkeep up north confirmed that Lord Jamis’s mistress, Phelia, was only a half day ahead of us and headed here. Within days after Jamis’s arrest, the high lord had squawked about the Spiriter’s identity. Course, it took a bit of Omar’s torture to get it out of him.
It’s not uncommon for noblemen at court to have mistresses. The women keep to themselves. For this reason, I doubt anyone would’ve thought her a threat. Especially since association with a high nobleman comes with some protection. Still, it’s not a mistake that I, or the few men who know the harm the Spiriter inflicted, will make again.
As soon as she was identified, King Aodren sent me after her. I’ve followed Phelia’s trail across Malam and into the dangers of Shaerdan. And now, finally, Siron’s speed has bought us enough time to cross paths.
The bloody hunt’s had me noosed for a month. That’s a month longer than I’ve wanted to be gone from Brentyn and Britta. And damn if I haven’t felt off the entire time we’ve been apart. Like distance has set me adrift.
Today the hunt ends.
Most barkeeps won’t suffer a man who’ll fill a chair and not pay to fill a cup or four. Even so, I’ve no time for primer drinks. “We’re looking for our mother, who came south to find work.” In a Shaerdanian lilt, I go on with the fib, explaining that we’re soldiers returning from the war—?or almost war since it ended a little over a month ago, before it officially began. “Light brown hair, blue eyes, about this tall. Goes by the name Phelia.” I hold my hand up, providing the description that the castle attendants gave me. “Seen anyone like that?”
The man pushes his tongue into the side of his cheek and then slides it over half-blackened teeth. “Aye. Perhaps.”
“I’m all ears.”
“Yeah. Might’ve seen someone matching that description earlier.”
“How long ago?” Finn cuts in. I shoot him a look. His Shaerdanian accent wouldn’t fool a deaf goat. Told him as much in the last town.
The barkeep doesn’t seem to notice. He plunks a couple mugs on the counter. “Before we get too chatty, let me get you fellas a drink.”
It’s a fight to keep the easy smile on my face, knowing he likely holds information about Phelia. My hand shifts to my belt, to cover the parchment hidden in the leather. The motion usually centers me.
“Or, if you’re aiming to take off sooner . . .” The man taps a glass on the counter. “You can pay for a drink and leave with some answers.”
Right. Should’ve thrown money at him in the first place. I withdraw some coins, dropping them to plink on the wood. “Good enough?”
“Cohen.” Finn’s sharp whisper snags my attention. He reaches for the coins.
The man’s fist slams Finn’s hand flat against the bar.
My brother yelps.
Confused, I shove my chair back and lean into the barkeep’s face. “Get your hand off my brother.”
The music stops. Every eye in the tavern cuts to us. A few men rise to their feet.
“No Shaerdanian would pay with Malam coins,” the barkeep says.
My jaw ticks, insides seizing like Siron’s kicked me in the gut.
Bloody seeds.
“You think I’m one of those scrants?” I spit, leaning heavily into a Shaerdanian accent that sounds loud but flat in the silent room.
Finn’s eyes volley around the tavern and back to his trapped hand. The kid hides his panic as well as a tabby cat in a wolf den.
“Your brother looks like he’s about to toss his last meal. Doesn’t seem soldierly to me.” He grips Finn’s fingers, ripping away my brother’s hand to pick up the damning coins.
Three prayers Finn doesn’t open his mouth.
“Must’ve forgot those were in my pocket.” I lean back in my chair. Shrug. “Needed some Malamian silvers at the border. Nothing to spoil a man’s drink over.”
Boots scratch the plank floor. Men step closer.
The barkeep cocks his head. “A fortnight back, two teenage girls went missing. Upset a lot of kinsmen ’round here. A town over, a girl was taken just a week ago. Her pa saw the men who did it. Tried to fight them and lost his life. Poor man’s wife caught sight of the raiders as they were shoving her girl in a carriage. Heard ’em speak. Said they sounded Malamian. Now, why would a few ball-less scrants from Malam want our girls? Maybe they’re itching to rekindle the war they almost started. What do you know of that, traveler?”
“No more than tavern hearsay.” During my travels I’ve caught a few stories similar to this man’s. Daughters taken at night. Some snatched during the day. No women, just girls. It’s enough to raise concerns, but that’s something to focus on after I’ve got Phelia manacled.
“Now, I can see you’re a smart man,” I tell the barkeep. “You don’t really think my brother and me have something to do with that. Coins don’t mean anything. Collector’s items.”
“Your brother’s awfully silent.”
“He’s shy. You scare the piss out of him.”
A shadow shifts over my left shoulder. A giant of a man glares down at us. “Yeah, speak, boy.”
“Leave him out of this.” My unspoken warning is clear.
Another person moves behind Finn, blocking the path to the door. “Maybe we’ve caught us two of their spies. Maybe we pry loose answers about where they been hiding our girls.” His bush of a beard barely moves when he talks, the comment sliding from the slits of his lips like snakes from under a briar. He must not really think we’re the kidnappers, or he’d have gutted us already. Still, I eye his hand as it moves to the dagger tucked into his belt. “Explain yourself, boy.”
In Finn’s fourteen years, I figure I’ve seen every one of my brother’s expressions. The wide tooth-and-gum smile he flashes when he catches a river trout. How tight-knit his brows get when he’s frustrated or angry. The somber set of his eyes before we part for months on end. None of those expressions match the look he’s giving me now. Panic and fear and something more. Something like disappointment.
I put a hand on Finn’s shoulder, squeezing. Reassuring. “He’s a boy. One who needs to get back to tending fields. Not sit around in taverns. Time to go, Finn.”
“You aren’t leaving so soon” comes from the Goliath behind me.
“It’s the truth.” Finn misses the accent target by a league.
“He’s from Malam!” the barkeep yells.
Bloody seeds!
Someone reaches for Finn, but my brother skitters out of his seat. I slam an elbow into the man behind me before he can grab Finn. “Get out of here,” I rasp.
My brother jerks away, maneuvering for the door before more kinsmen come at me. Four to one aren’t bad odds, considering the barkeep is blocked by the counter.
The bearded man charges. I jump back, grab my stool, and shove it into his gut. Angling for the door, I slam a shoulder against another fellow. Fend off a punch. Take a fist square to the chin. Bludger.
I block a hit, bob out of reach from someone coming at my side, and narrowly avoid a crashing stool. Cheers erupt over the fight. A few voices shout to end it. Or end me. The tavern is chaos.
I manage to push someone onto the playing table. Cards scatter. Money falls to the floor. The diversion leaves one mountain of a man between the exit and me. He’s easily a half-head taller and a half-body bigger. The zing of his drawn sword has me cursing.
The man swings. I grasp a stool, thrusting it between us to catch his blade before it takes off my limb. My arms rattle from wrists to elbows. I use all my strength to twist the stool and shove, a move that sends the man off-balance and gives me the opening I need to flee the tavern.
Finn’s across the street, headed for an alley. I scramble after him, my breath running hard. The tavern thugs chase us around town, but they’re drunk and we’re sober. We wind through shops and hide in shadows until we’ve lost any followers.
On the northern outskirts of Rasimere Crossing, an old barn sits unused. We settle against the wall that faces the forest and catch our breath.
Sweat slides down Finn’s temples. “Cannot believe that.”
“I nearly got you killed.” I’m so angry, it comes out choppy. I promised Ma and myself I’d keep him safe. Piss of a job I’ve done.
“Nah, you made me leave before it got to the good part.”
I rub my thumb over the scar that starts beneath my cheekbone and hides in my short beard. “The good part?”
“I didn’t get any punches in, but still . . .”
“Shouldn’t have been in a situation for you to throw punches.”
“My first tavern fight,” he says, awed.
“Don’t be a fool.”
He grins, teeth and gums shining under the sun.
Footsteps clap against the ground around the corner. I grab my dagger as a girl holding a sword steps into sight. There’s something familiar about her raven hair and tan face. Irritated that she was able to sneak up on us, I gesture with the point of my blade. “Stop there and state your business.”
Her lips twitch. “Nice to see you too, Cohen.”
My frown sets. I rack my brain. Who’s this girl?
She lets out a short, squeaky laugh that sounds like it’s being pressed through a windbag. “You don’t remember who I am? We met once . . .” She trails off, as if hoping I’ll pick up the scent. “In Celize.”
“I meet a lot of people.”
Her grin fades. “At Enat’s home.”
A memory surfaces of a log home outside of Celize. My scowl shifts into surprise. “The Archtraitor’s daughter. Lirra, right?”
Her father is infamous for openly opposing the Purge Proclamation—?a decree that eliminated most Channelers in Malam—?and defecting to Shaerdan after his wife and small child were killed because of his outspoken defiance.
Lirra cinches up straighter than an arrow. “Don’t call him the Archtraitor. Around here, he’s just Millner Barrett.”
“No offense intended.”
She eyeballs my dagger. “Lower your blade, hunter. I know where you can find the woman you’re hunting.”