© 2015 Halie Fewkes; haliefewkes@gmail.com

HIDDEN CONTENT

Reading in English, Using the Escali Alphabet?  You're Practically a Tally Already! 

If you're here, you're obviously a true Tally fan, and for that, I sincerely thank you! This is where I plan to post fun deleted scenes, ideas, and maybe even a few snippets from the upcoming book.  

After a long wait, I've finally added in the opening scene for Book Four!  Remember - this is still SECRET haha, so don't share it anywhere. 

Encourage people to solve the code for themselves, but don't give it away! Solving it is half the fun. 

-Halie

To Wear The Cloak (Book Four) Opening Scene

 

Archie Prologue

    

     A light breeze whispered through thousands of towering pines and cedars above Archie’s head, but it also whistled softly through the reed-thistles far below his feet. The sound rose around the cliffs like the hum of distant music. Harmonious notes blended and carried on the wind, like a small symphony of reed flutes playing to keep him company. But while a real reed flute was known for spreading song and whimsy, the resonating music below Archie warned that a hundred thousand needles awaited should he fall.

     Archie couldn’t see a thing through the blindfold Maverick had tied so tightly, and his hands were gloved so if he really did plummet into those thistles, his shield power wouldn’t save him. He’d remained calm until now because he had a better sense of direction than any Human could guess, and he knew exactly where the cliff drop-off lay.

          It was right in front of his feet.

          The reed-thistles were a good three-second fall below him, and Archie couldn’t help replaying Kit’s advice from this morning. The cold, unsmiling Zhauri brother had pulled him aside to warn, If you find yourself falling, cover your eyes.

     “Walk forward,” Maverick told him, and Archie’s heart sank as he realized what this really was.

     The entire Zhauri initiation so far had been about proving blind, unthinking loyalty – something Archie wasn’t succeeding in so far. Maverick wanted him to willingly walk off the ledge, the same way he wanted him to drown gracefully upon command, without thrashing or fighting for air. Archie knew they’d pull him from the thistles the same way they’d resuscitated him after the drowning, but it didn’t matter. This was madness.

     “Straight forward, Architer,” Maverick clarified in a low tone. Archie usually knew better than to challenge his father when he heard that voice, but the threat of the humming reed thistles below was too severe.

     “This is stupid,” Archie growled in return. He reached up to tug the blindfold off his eyes as he stepped back from the ledge. “I don’t need to hurl myself off a cliff to prove-”

     Archie’s backward step never connected with the ground, and he gasped as he fell back into nothing. The blindfold came off just in time for the bright sunlight to daze him as he plummeted through the air, and he caught the briefest glimpse of the cushion of reed thistles waiting to break his fall. Archie couldn’t fathom how the drop-off had been behind him, but it didn’t matter now.

     He locked his right arm around his eyes and braced for the worst pain of his life.

     Archie’s screams were inhuman when he finally crashed into the thorns. His agony echoed around the northern mountain range as needles pierced his entire body. He couldn’t tell if he’d landed in thistles or a blanket of wasps, all vindictively stinging him at once.

     His entire body went into shock and then into a numb stupor as the breeze sang softly through the thistle patch around him.

     Archie never took his arm off his eyes, and he gritted his teeth tightly as he heard Kit and Dauer wading into the reed-thistles to carry him out. He could barely breathe as Kit held him up by the hair and they pulled needles from his back and neck before laying him down.

     Dauer was trying to lighten the situation with some stupid attempt at humor, but Archie was in too much pain to process it. In true Escali fashion, all his higher thoughts were shutting down to process the more immediate damage.

     It was his body’s way of telling his mind, Go take a nap. I’ll take care of this.

     Archie was entirely delirious, but when he saw Maverick standing over him, his instincts seemed to wake him back up. The Zhauri’s leader was talking to him, and Archie could tell by the tone and expression that he needed to listen.

     “Do you hear me, Architer?” Maverick demanded, kneeling down to get right in his face. Archie’s voice still hadn’t come back, but he nodded quickly and took a sharp breath as pain flared across his ribs. Kit and Dauer were still pulling thistles out of his sides. “You are going to die in this initiation,” Maverick snarled at him. “You’ve got the strength and the powers, and you’re going to fail because you can’t take an order from your king.”

     “You always knew I’d question you,” Archie wheezed in return. Maverick was the king now, but that didn’t change anything. Archie took a few more strained breaths, then said the truth that might just end him. “You threatened to my friends to get me into this initiation, but those threats will never buy you the kind of loyalty you want.”

     Maverick seethed in silence, then surprised him as he said, “Perhaps you’re right.”

     Archie’s saw a burning flare in his father’s hands – Maverick’s way of summoning jumpers when he needed to go somewhere.

     Archie squeezed his eyes tightly shut as a man he didn’t know arrived and jumped him several times across unknown distances. He still wasn’t ready to stand when they reached their final destination, and he collapsed to his knees as Maverick appeared beside him. The jumper disappeared, and Archie was left alone with the new king and a shocking scene before them.

     “Where are we?” Archie breathed, gazing over the red rock terrain to the foreign city in the deep canyon below. The massive buildings towered out of the canyon, coming about even with where Archie and Maverick now stood – but the real spectacle was above the city.

     A flying ship hovered over the metropolis, and a loud BOOM erupted at the same time one of the towers shattered and collapsed to the ground.

     “We’re east of Tekada,” Maverick replied as another thunderous explosion blasted apart the base of another tower. “This is one of the small, eastern kingdoms that Tekada is in the process of conquering. And these are the airships of which I’m sure you’ve heard stories.”

     Massive barrels protruded along the sides of the ship, reminiscent of the guns he and Allie had witnessed during their own excursion to Tekada. But instead of striking a person down, these destroyed entire buildings with each clap of thunder.

     “Why are we here?” Archie asked, looking further down the canyon to see a second airship hovering. Ladders draped off the sides as an entire army seemed to be climbing down to the ground, getting ready to assault the city on foot as well.

     “I wanted you to see it,” Maverick replied easily. “We’ve officially declared our independence from Tekada, which means as soon as they’re done massacring this last holdout, they’ll be assembling their fleet to attack us next. We’re expecting twenty to twenty five airships will be sent to decimate our cities.”

     The city before them catapulted massive, flaming projectiles defensively into the sky. Three of the fireballs struck the airship and barely dented the metallic sides before careening back down to the city to crash into their own buildings. Screams echoed from below, and Archie saw white flags of surrender raising into the sky as the ship fired again.

     “They’re not accepting the surrender,” Archie whispered in disbelief.

     “They won’t,” Maverick confirmed. “They’ll burn the city down and take the survivors as slaves. This is what we’re up against, Architer. Twenty five of these airships, and a merciless king who’s has never lost a war.”

     “They could destroy everything,” Archie breathed. Anger and despair crept into his chest as he growled, “You’re supposed to be Humanity’s new king – how are you wasting time on a Zhauri initiation when this is coming for us?”

     “Because if you don’t live through this initiation, these Tekadans will kill all of us,” Maverick snarled in return. “You are one of my most important assets, Architer, and I can mount a defense against this,” Maverick looked out to the canyon as well, “but my plans are delicate. They will absolutely fail if I have you second guessing my orders and trying to take matters into your own hands.”

     Archie looked back down to see innocents fleeing the destruction, trying to escape through the canyon to the south, where the Tekadan soldiers were unloading. And Archie looked away as the Tekadans charged toward the defenseless escapees, cutting through the crowd who had nowhere to flee.

     “What defense can we possibly muster against this?” he murmured, watching as another round of catapulted fireballs bounced off the airships’ hulls. The airship guns fired again and exploded another building. “Every defense we’ve got is already tied up in the war with the Escalis.”

     “Architer, I have pulled off equally impossible feats over the years. This is a matter of strength and wit, and I alone can face King Kelian in these regards. If I tell you I can leverage our resources and mount a real defense against Tekada, do you believe it?”

     Archie hesitated, because as cruel and unfeeling as the king could often be, a powerful and unyielding man was exactly what they needed. Somebody who could lead, and scheme, and make a stand.

     “You’d have the best chance of rallying our continent against him,” Archie conceded.

     “Then take a good look, and make your decision.” Maverick grabbed him by the hair and forced him to look back down to the massacre below.

     More people tried to escape the fiery pit, only to be cut down by the Tekadan soldiers approaching the city, and Maverick said, “If you truly believe I’m the one who can save us, then give up this idiotic defiance and make a real commitment to joining the Zhauri. When I say walk, don’t question it. Walk. If I tell you to kill, you can’t hesitate – make the kill.” Archie’s chest felt tight, and the searing sting of the thorns still burned across his skin. “If you don’t declare your loyalty and mean it, then this initiation will kill you. And by extension, the rest of us too.”    

     Archie nodded, and even though every fiber of his being wanted to oppose the cruel man beside him, a smaller voice in his head said it was alright to surrender. Serve Maverick, become the newest member of the Zhauri, and save every Human on their continent from this annihilation. Giving in wasn’t only the easier choice – it was the right choice.

     “How can we stop this?” Archie asked.

     “Focus on proving yourself and getting through this initiation, and then I’ll explain everything,” Maverick said. “But I promise, Architer, if you fight for me wholeheartedly, then I will save our continent from this fate.”

    

    

     One Week Later

    

    

     A new breeze whispered through the cedars and foliage surrounding the Zhauri, excruciatingly painful as it came into contact with the newest open wounds across Archie’s entire body. His left arm was around Kit’s shoulders and his right around Dauer’s as they helped him stumble between the towering trees. He gritted his teeth against the pain lancing through him and clamped his eyes closed as a trail of blood reached his left eye, blurring his sight.

     “It’s almost over,” Dauer assured him, just about dragging Archie’s feet across the dusty forest floor. “You did great, Architer.”

     Kit wasn’t much of a talker, but he’d grabbed a cloth from a concealed pocket to wipe the blood from Archie’s vision. Archie blinked several times and squinted against the sun peeking through the pines. A small cabin came into view ahead as his body seized in pain.

     “Where are we now?” he rasped through his hoarse throat, coughing as his lungs heaved. He felt like he’d inhaled handfuls of razor-spores.

     “Taking you to see my mother,” Kit replied.

     Archie was wildly confused. They were nowhere near Kit’s northern residence, and the tiny log cabin ahead was one he’d never seen.

     “Is she a healer?” Archie asked beneath his breath.

     “The best there is,” Kit replied.

     The next few minutes were a confusing blur as Maverick greeted Kit’s raven-haired mother at the cabin door. Archie was delirious as Juna gasped at the sight of his wounds and motioned them inside. Kit and Dauer held him up until he was vaguely aware that Juna had healed the deepest gashes on his chest, and then he found himself lying face down on a log framed bed. The other Zhauri were gone, and only Kit’s mother remained at his side.

     “Oh dear, you are a mess.” He felt light touches on his back. “How do you feel?”

     “Tekada,” Archie wheezed. “The Escalis. Juna, what have I missed?”

     “Calm down,” she said gently. “I’m sure everybody who was alive ten days ago is still alive.”

     “I need to know,” he gasped as he tried to push himself up, “what’s been happening?”

     “Maverick will be back to fill you in tomorrow.” Juna set a few fingers on his shoulder and pushed him gently back down. “And it’s my job to have you looking shiny before he gets here. Now tell me how you’re feeling.”

     “Everything hurts,” he groaned. His chest, back, legs, and arms were all cut to ribbons, and his face was going to be riddled with scars.

     Archie gasped as she set her hands on his back, and the fiery lashings across his skin turned to pleasant tingles. The relief was so overwhelming, his eyes began to water.

     “It’s alright to cry,” Juna told him gently as Archie clenched his fists, refusing to let a single tear fall. “Kit and Dauer both did when I healed them.”

     Archie hissed a painful chuckle through his teeth. “You shouldn’t have told me that.”

     “Oh, I’m sure they have equally embarrassing dirt on you by now,” Juna replied, a hint of a laugh in her voice. She couldn’t be more right. Kit and Dauer had seen Archie tortured over the past two years. They’d woken him from sobbing nightmares, they’d watched him break during initiation... But even Dauer didn’t tease him for his moments of vulnerability. They all had them.

     “You must be exhausted.”

     Archie nodded miserably as she reached her hands to rest on his shoulders. His body shuddered in relief as the healing magic sank in.

     He did want to cry - not from the pain or distress, but from relief - from having somebody tending to his wounds with such kindness in their words.

     Her soft touches cooled more of the pain, but he already knew she couldn’t heal his scars – no healer could. He’d be disfigured and unsightly for the rest of his life, all because he hadn’t been able to submit to Maverick’s will quickly enough, despite his best efforts. He’d be the new Iquis of the Zhauri, the one people shied away from and sidestepped, never making eye contact if they could help it. He’d be surprised if Juna even continued to look at him with motherly care after the healing was finished.

     “Go to sleep, Architer,” she said softly. He wasn’t the least bit surprised to hear his real name anymore, but he wondered vaguely to himself how Maverick had discovered it. He could have counted on one hand how many people knew the name Architer before this initiation, but now it was spreading quickly – Maverick was making sure of it. “I’ll take care of you, and I’ll be here when you wake up. Get your rest.”

     “Thank you,” he said as her hands pressed around his ribs. He relished the relief that came with her touch.

     “You’re very welcome, dear. You’ve earned it.”

     He relaxed more with every gash she healed, and his thoughts wandered to the airships that seemed so unstoppable. He thought briefly about the unending Human Escali war, and how Humanity on this continent might soon be facing the Escalis and the Tekadans. If they couldn’t beat the Escalis alone, what hope did they have of fighting two wars at once?

     Juna began humming to herself as Archie decided to leave the worries for tomorrow. He was finally drifting toward an easy, deep sleep – something he hadn’t experienced in quite a long time.

    

    

     Archie woke in a startle and looked around the log cabin as dying evening sunlight streamed through the windows and crickets chirped outside. He’d slept all night, and then the whole day too. He remembered the tune Juna had hummed to him for hours, and remembered her rolling him over to finish the healing while the windows were still dark – but it had otherwise been a peaceful, dreamless sleep.

     Archie held his arms out and his eyes widened in shock as smooth, scarless skin greeted him. He jerked the sheets back to see his legs, also unscarred, and threw a hand to his face to feel it unmarked. He leapt up and examined his arms again to make sure he wasn’t dreaming.

     She’d healed his scars. Even the past years’ whip stripes across his back were gone, and Archie released a breath of relief as deep as the ocean. He thought he’d be forever marred, and Juna had fixed him. 

     A clean set of Zhauri greys had been laid across the foot of the bed, and he dressed quickly before exiting the small room to find a kitchen. Juna had tied her hair haphazardly back, and Archie saw just a hint of grey beginning to show in the strands that fell from her ponytail. She’d just finished rolling out the top crust of a pie and was laying it over a mount of apples.

     Archie drew his brows together as she turned to greet him.

     “Am I dead?”

     “If you are, that means I failed at my job as a healer, and I can guarantee that didn’t happen.”

     Archie glanced around the unbelievable scene again, then once more to his scarless arms. “Kit got his enhanced powers from you,” Archie whispered, looking up to see gentle amusement on Juna’s face. “He must have. Regular healers can’t heal scars.”

     All of the Zhauri had enhanced powers, which came from one parent or another. But he hadn’t expected Kit’s kind-hearted mother of five to be the carrier of the gene.  

     Juna smiled and said, “He got a lot from me. Why don’t you come help with dinner? Open the oven and throw the pie in for me – just move the roast over first. I have a couple things to grab for you.”

     Juna opened a narrow door and disappeared as Archie approached the oven with caution. Everything was too good, and made him inherently suspicious after the ten days he’d just survived.

     Kit’s mother reemerged from the side room as he finished closing the pie into the blazing oven, and she carried a white cloak with her. “This is from the winter wolf you killed on your first day of initiation,” she told him, draping the fur around his shoulders and coming back around the front to fasten it to the sewn-in hooks beside his neck. “The wolf head is gone on the cloaks this year. I think Maverick wants the team to look more like a royal guard, now that he’s king.”

     Juna stepped back from him, and Archie just found himself speechless. It was such a simple gesture, for her to fasten the cloak around his shoulders, but something about it made him ache. His sister, Fallistra had always taken care of him like this, and he’d forgotten how much he missed it – somebody who cared about him without reservation.

     “I… don’t know how to thank you,” he said softly, nodding to his arms without adequate words. “I’m…”

     “Thank you is enough. You’re one of the Zhauri now. I’ll always be here to take care of you.” Juna passed him to open the oven door and double check his work before closing it again. “Although, I was a bit surprised when Maverick told me we had an initiation coming up. Last time you and I spoke, you weren’t sounding very interested in the brotherhood.”

     Archie let an uneasy chuckle escape. “There was a change in membership since we last spoke. It made joining more palatable.”

     Juna shot him a smirk, and Archie got the sense she wasn’t missing them either. The deaths of Zeen and Iquis had removed the two cruelest members of the Zhauri Brotherhood, but that wasn’t the whole truth of Archie’s commitment – he’d only attempted Maverick’s initiation to save Allie.

     They’d finally pushed Maverick too far when Allie, Archie, Ebby, Vack, and Jalia tried to stand against the new king on the hilltop of ancient white ruins. The Zhauri had subdued them, and Archie’s only way to save Allie from the ten thousand year sentence was to serve Maverick as a member of the brotherhood, once and for all.

     That was how he ended up starting the initiation - seeing the threat of the Tekadan airships was the motivation he needed to survive and truly become a Zhauri brother who served Maverick.

     “Well, whatever caused you to change your mind, I’m proud of you,” she said, the warmth in her voice drawing a smile from him too. “And I have one more thing to give you before I leave.”

     “More than the pie in the oven?” Archie asked with disbelief.

     “I will need you to remove the roast and the pie right around sunset, which is also when Maverick, Kit, and Dauer should be getting here. But in the meantime, yes. I do have something that’s better than pie.”

     Juna pushed open the door to reveal only a small closet within, and Archie thought he heard a whimper before a smile spread across his face.

     Puppies.

     Two white puppies slept between a black and a chocolate. Three more tumbled and played, all with different patterns of black, white, and grey fur, and the last was a mix of deep brown, gold, and white. He stood at the edge of the low walled pen, his honey-tipped tail wagging as he panted eagerly and watched Archie approach.

     “Dauer assures me this is the best part of being a Zhauri brother,” Juna said as the multicolored ball of fur yipped at Archie, then tried to jump and fell over. “You’ve got until sunset to pick the one you want. I’ll be off now. Don’t forget the pie in the oven.”

     “Thanks, Juna,” Archie said, reaching to hug her as she wrapped her arms around him with a tight squeeze. “For everything.”

     “Of course, Architer. I can’t wait to see the things you’ll do.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kit - (2016 Short Fiction)

     Anybody who fears monsters has never known the panic of a failed crop. Starvation is scarier. It’s harder to combat, it sneaks in quietly, slowly, and whispers its intentions into your ear, then laughs as you die. How do you ration life when there’s not enough to go around? How do you choose who goes first?

     Kit set both hands on his hollow stomach, which hadn’t pained him since midday yesterday because it knew exactly what not to expect. His three younger sisters were probably still asleep in their room while the baby slept with his parents.

     Kit, however, had woken early, scraped a small portion of oats out of their last barrel, and used the energy to walk five miles into the city. He felt like nothing here, an out of place nothing who didn’t understand where people were scurrying to, or how they’d built their buildings so tall, or how they managed to make a living. He’d come here yesterday, stood on the nearest corner to try to sell his father’s braided ropes to anyone who could pay, and he’d been spit on. Only desperation had brought him back.

     He’d never waited in a line in his life. The man before him was called into the tent, and Kit glanced at the two Zhauri brothers standing guard at the entrance. Kit would be lucky to go home at all after this. He’d lied to get into this line, and the Zhauri were mercenaries, not known for their forgiving nature.

     They were looking for someone, a jewel thief and a traitor by the sound of it, and Kit had claimed to have information regarding him. This had to be the dumbest thing anyone had ever done.

     The man in the tent was speaking loudly, saying he’d spotted the thief in the base of the eastern mountains. The two brothers standing guard looked bored, but still fearsome, their white wolf-fur cloaks draped over their shoulders. If Kit was good with people, or words, or anything useful, he might have engaged them in conversation, but he just felt suddenly conscious of the rag-like coats he wore. They were better than anything his sisters donned, but still an embarrassment, and he couldn’t bring himself to make eye contact with anyone.

     What was he thinking?

     Maverick, the famous Zhauri leader, stepped out of the tent and looked to the two guards. “We don’t need anyone else. Pack your gear. We’re out of here in two hours.”

     Kit felt faint as Maverick disappeared back into the tent, and the two brothers outside called for the line to disband and leave. People grumbled and swore about the wait for nothing, but nobody said anything directly to the Zhauri as the mercenary guards turned to follow Maverick inside.

     “Wait,” Kit said, stumbling forward like he’d forgotten how to use his shanking feet.

     “Sorry son, we don’t need to hear anyone else,” the taller guard told him.

     “No, no,” Kit said, “I wan’...” he faltered as they both looked straight at him. “I wanna join you,” Kit said, swallowing his pride, knowing that he looked like a hopeless beggar. He was ready for them to spit on him too.

They glanced at each other with a hint of a grin.

     “Listen,” said the shorter brother with black, tied back hair. “We’ve got five brothers already, you’re not old enough, and you have to have a power-”

     “I have a power,” Kit said as Maverick stepped back out of the tent. “I can move things without touching them. And I can break things.” Maverick looked impatient as Kit tried to explain, “Big things. I can break big things.”

Kit had never been good with words, and broke into a sweat with the sudden desire to beg their forgiveness and crawl away.

     “Go to the Dragona then,” said the first. “You’ll never be hungry again. They’ll train you there.”

     “I’ve got a family,” Kit whispered miserably, hanging his head. They all relied on him. He could save himself by going to the Dragona, but he would have nothing to send back to them.

     “What’s your name, boy?” Maverick asked.

     “Kit.”

     “Come back in a couple years, Kit,” Maverick said, looking at the other two brothers. “And you two, pack your gear.”

     Maverick disappeared back into the tent, and Kit watched the other two leave. Despair sank further into his bones and his stomach reminded him that he was going to die this winter. Kit had never stolen anything, but as he walked back through the city, he used his power to lift a loaf of bread from all the way across the pavilion.

     Everybody knew Kit wasn’t much of a thinker and reminded him of it often, but as he sat savoring the life-giving sustenance in his hands, he had a thought. It was dangerous and idiotic, but it was better than waiting to die.

 

 

     Kit knew the eastern mountains well. He had found his sister Taria in a cave up here when she’d run from home three years ago. He used to track wild game out here before last winter had killed nearly everything. He was pretty certain he could find anything.

     And when Kit walked into the city this time, he drew attention and cries of alarm from everybody he passed.  

     It was probably because he had a struggling man thrown over one shoulder, tied up with far more rope than necessary. But rope was valuable, and Kit couldn’t bear to cut it, so he’d wrapped the thief in the length of it.

     Some people followed after him curiously while others shouted and ran to fetch the city guard. Some even knew his name and tried to ask what he’d done, but he ignored them all. When the city guards arrived in their full suits of metal armor, demanding that Kit surrender his prisoner, Kit waved his free hand and sent the men flying out of his way.

     Kit stopped at the bread stand he’d stolen from and asked, “Where are the Zhauri?”

     The bearded man replied quickly, “Mayor’s house.”

     Kit nodded and then marched through the streets, toward the most official looking building he’d passed all day.      Not a single one of the people following him could have guessed at his dizziness, or known how badly his arms ached from carrying this man.

     The guards at the mayors house also asked him to surrender his prisoner, and Kit smiled at the loud clanging that reverberated across the city as he threw them into the walls.

     The doors to the stone building were locked, and Kit wasn’t sure how to unlock them. Would a simple guard have the keys? Or would it just be somebody inside? Kit glanced all around as the crowd following him began to chatter.

     Not wanting to look like a dawdling fool, Kit extended his free arm and focused all his strength on prying the doors open. They tugged and pulled at their bolts before the locking mechanisms burst and they exploded outward.

     Kit strolled inside, clanged two more guards together, and used nearly all his gift to force the next door open. Except he accidentally pried the entire thing out of its frame and had to dodge out of its way as it sailed toward him.

     All five of the Zhauri were behind this one, and staring at him as though they couldn’t quite believe their eyes.  The two who’d been guarding the tent stood with a threatening glow in their hands as Kit stepped into the room.

     “I wanna join you,” Kit said again, throwing the bound man down at their feet.

     Maverick looked at Kit in silence as the other brothers examined his offering in shock.

     An eternity seemed to pass as Maverick stared at him. He finally narrowed his eyes and asked, “How old are you, Kit?”

     “Fifteen,” Kit said, holding his head high even though he felt ready to collapse.

     Maverick glanced at the man at his feet and said, “It’s him.” He glanced at the two beside him and said, “Zeen. Iquis. Find out where his stash is. Kit and I are going to take a walk.”

     Kit froze as Maverick walked toward him, not able to read if his plan had gone well or just cost him his life. Maverick set a hand on Kit’s shoulder to guide him out of the room, and Kit couldn’t help but feel like a horse whose master was taking him to the woods to put him down. He felt shaky inside, because the last thing his family could afford was to lose him.

     Maverick steered him into a different hallway in silence and a servant emerged from the doors at the end as they approached.

     “Sir...” the man stuttered, clearly startled. “We’re not quite finished cleaning up your breakfast. If you would just allow-”

     “We have need of the room,” Maverick said, pushing past him to pull the doors open. “You may resume when we’re done.”

     Kit walked into a long hall with Maverick where a table the size of his house stretched down the middle, filled with food. Kit felt faint at the smell of it and tried to focus so he wouldn’t stumble.

     “Have a seat,” Maverick said, seating himself at a corner of the table. Kit sat gingerly around the corner from him and tried not to look, but the food kept pulling his attention and he found himself gawking.

     He glanced at Maverick and asked, “Can... I?”

     “It’s may I,” Maverick told him. “And yes, but not yet. Life is about self-control. You’ll eat when we’re finished talking.”

     Kit gathered himself and resigned to wait. He would make it.

     “Let me see if I can tell your story for you,” Maverick said, leaning back in his chair. “You clearly have a power. I’m guessing you’ve used it for odd jobs all around the city, but times being what they are, your services aren’t being requested anymore. You probably can’t read or write, but I’m guessing you’ve got a family you’re trying to look after?”

     Kit nodded, trying not to look at the gigantic roasted bird on the table, three times bigger than any chicken he’d ever butchered.

     “You’ve got good intentions, Kit, but it takes more than that to join the Zhauri brotherhood. You’re not ready. And if you’re trying to join for money, you’ll never be ready.”

     “It’s more’n just the money-”

     “More than,” Maverick said in distaste. “You’re nearly a grown man, Kit. Pronounce your words.”

     Kit frowned, because he was pretty sure more’n was a word. “It’s not just the money,” he restarted. “I’m strong, and I wanna make myself something. I want people to have to respect me, and my family.”

     “Tell me about them,” Maverick said.

     “My family?” Kit asked. Maverick nodded and Kit hesitated. “I... have three lil’ sisters, well, four now. My parents gave us a four two months ago, but... I heard ‘em talking last night, about leaving her out inna snow.” Kit tried to keep his voice flat so Maverick wouldn’t think him weak. “They talk like we can make it through the winter with one less mouth, but none of us is going to.”

     Maverick folded his hands rather tightly as Kit spoke, as though enduring his poor grammar, then asked, “What does your father do?”

     “He weaves ropes,” Kit muttered. Maverick narrowed his eyes distastefully until Kit added, “He’s... blind, Sir. He can’t do lots much anymore.”

     Maverick studied Kit for a moment before he asked, “Have you ever seen one of these?”

     Maverick reached into his pack, pulled out a coin the diameter of Kit’s fist, and clinked it down on the table.  

     Kit’s eyes lit with shock. He’d heard of gold sigils, but he’d never seen one. It was enough to feed his whole family through the winter, buy a new set of clothes for himself and every one of his sisters, enough to buy them all brand new shoes, and they would still have enough left over to buy a cow.

     “Did you know this was the bounty offered for catching that jewel-thief?”

     Kit shook his head in shock. “No, Sir.”

     “It could have been yours if you’d surrendered him to the city watch. But you didn’t. You brought him to us, and we’re not offering any reward.”

     Kit stared down at the coin, at life itself, and felt suddenly sick.

     “Then let me join you.” His voice cracked. “That’s why I brought’em to you.”

     “You’ve lost your golden coin, but you’ve gained my attention,” Maverick said staring hard at Kit. “A bold choice, but perhaps one you won’t regret. Do you have any idea what a Zhauri brother’s salary looks like?”

     Kit shook his head and reached to brush his fingers against the cold metal, feeling his heart stop as Maverick pulled out four more gigantic coins, laying them out in a circle.

     “Some years are better than others, but on average, this is what a Zhauri brother brings home. It’s the most physically demanding lifestyle you could ever imagine Kit, and not all brothers make it home every year.”

     “I can do it,” Kit said breathlessly, looking up into Maverick’s cold eyes. “I’ll make it. I’ll show you.”

     “The youngest we’ve ever taken on was nineteen. You’re not ready yet, but I’ll allow you to try when you’re sixteen. It’s just one year away, Kit. I want you to be absolutely sure this is what you want.”

     Maverick picked up each of the coins, one by one, shattering Kit’s hopes into smaller and smaller pieces as his stomach growled angrily. He could heard his younger sister, Cascade, crying in the room they all shared as Taria and Ippi assured her sleep would dull the pain of hunger. He couldn’t listen to it anymore.

     “I’m ready now,” Kit said, nearly on the verge of tears himself. “I’ll be the best brother you ever had.”

     “Don’t misunderstand me. You’ve got my attention, and I want you.” Maverick set the coins into Kit’s hands and then pushed Kit’s fingers closed around them as his breath froze in his chest. “But I’m buying you out for the next year.”

     Kit gasped and looked from his hands to Maverick. “What’s that mean?” he whispered.

     Maverick chuckled and said, “I mean I’m paying you your salary for the year so you won’t kill yourself trying to join before you’re ready. You’re obviously brave and hard-working, and a lot stronger than you look, Kit. You’re everything I want in a brother, and you’re my investment. By this time next year, I’m expecting to find you in good health, good shape, and with a good grammar instructor. If you have those three things, I can teach you the rest.”

     Kit’s heart stopped, and he couldn’t wrap his head around the idea that the coins weren’t about to be ripped away.

     “You’ll come back for me?” Kit asked, nearly choking.

     “Yes. We always take summers off, and I happen to have no plans for mine. If you decide you want to join, I’ll spend the summer getting you ready for initiation. You’ll be incredibly powerful with the right training... and a little food,” Maverick said, nodding to Kit’s middle, which seemed to be eating itself.

     Kit wiped his eyes quickly and said, “You won’t regret this. I won’t change my mind. I want to join.”

     Maverick smiled. “I’ll see you next summer then. Now eat up and go buy your sisters something nice.”

 

 

     Kit nearly skipped on the way home, checking his pockets twice a minute to make sure the coins were still safely tucked away, close to his person. His mother and sisters were nearly frantic with worry when they saw him, but their worried expressions turned to shock, and the greatest displays of joy in the world when he withdrew a gold coin to show them.

     The house filled with screams and delighted squeals as everybody took turns holding it, and the screams eventually turned into relieved tears and hugs and kisses on his cheek, and questions, and a dog-pile, and more kisses. Kit had never felt so high, and he told everyone that he’d found the jewel thief and brought him into town.

     “We’ll have to prepare a feast for tonight, to celebrate,” his mother, Juna, said. Kit knew her well though, and saw that her smile was forced.

     “Have you shown Father yet?” Taria squealed, grabbing the coin from Ippi as Cascade toddled between them, giggling for the sake of it.

     “Not yet,” Kit said with a grin. “Maybe you could show him for me? I’m going to help mother with dinner.”

     His three sisters ran outside with the coin in hand, and baby Lillian began to fuss from the bed. Kit’s mother picked the baby up and cuddled her into her shoulder.

     “That’s an awfully large ransom for catching a thief,” Juna said, shooting her I-am-your-mother eyes at him.

     “It really was the reward,” Kit said, walking to stand beside her, leaning down to give the baby a quick smile. “But I do want to talk to you before everybody else.”

     Her face fell and she said, “Please Kit. Tell me you didn’t sell yourself for a golden coin.”

     Kit raised his eyebrows and said, “No, no, it’s not like that. Well, it was more’n one, at least.”

     He reached back and pulled the other four coins from his pocket, setting them on the small counterspace as his mother looked like she might faint.

     “Kit!” she said, holding her hand over her mouth. “Did you rob the king?”

“Yes Mother, I robbed the king,” Kit said as she reached down to run her fingers across each weighty piece. She looked back up, positively frightened as he said, “I spoke to the Zhauri. I’m gonna join them. Next year, they’re coming back for me, and I’m gonna join.”

     “Oh, Kit,” she said setting a hand on the side of his face. “You haven’t even been to the Dragona. You know they kill the applicants who can’t make it through initiation, don’t you?”

     Kit nodded. “I know, but Maverick says I’ll make it. He says he’ll spend next summer training me to get me ready.”

     Her jaw fell open. “Maverick? Maverick is coming here to train you?

Kit couldn’t help laughing, because it did sound like the most absurd thing in the world. “I spoke to him today. He’s the one who gave us these, and this is how much I would send home to you every year. Every year, Mother! Can you even imagine? The house you could build, the clothes you could buy, the food you could eat... You and Father could have five more kids if you like. I mean, just keep going, get me that brother I keep asking for!”

Juna laughed with him and settled her eyes on the coins. “Oh Kit, are you sure? They hunt demons, and people, and take on all the things we deem impossible.”

“It’s just hunting,” Kit said. “I like to hunt.”

She pulled him into a sudden hug and said, “You’ve been the greatest blessing a mother could ever ask for. You know that, right?”

Kit nodded and hugged her tightly. “I’ll make you so proud.”