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 you can sometimes find scenes that have never been posted anywhere else, or occasionally even exclusive snippets from the upcoming book. 

Right now, we've got the opening scene to the Prince Avalask Prequel, which isn't yet released! 

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

Prologue To The "Prince Avalask" Prequel

(Only Read This if You've Read Books 1-4. Otherwise, it's going to spoil some things!)

 

Maverick

     Maverick’s polished brown boots broke through a thin crust of snow with every step, and he took a deep breath of freezing air before he released it in a great cloud of fog. His black and grey snow-dog, Catch, knew he was having a moment of overwhelm, and stayed calmly at his side as Maverick rubbed his temple.

     He’d come so far in mastering his powers since they’d first hit him in his pre-teen years. The ability to sense intentions was supposed to be a good, helpful power, but it had crippled him and nearly driven him insane when his gift came to him with an intensity he was sure nobody had ever survived before.

     One day, he was a motivated farm boy with dreams bigger than the sky and no hope of ever seeing them fulfilled. The next, he began to realize he could sense the intentions of people around him and that every single living thing lived with intent and purpose — every person, every animal, every bit of flora, and every worm in the dirt. It started as an exciting revelation, but quickly turned into a curse as the sensitivity became excruciating. The intentions became a tsunami washing over him every second, drowning out every other sense. He couldn’t shut them off.

     Being in the room with even a single person had turned into a head-spinning nightmare as his powers manifested. Everyone was just a different tangle of self-preservation and self-gain, mixed with curiosity and the intent to learn, and usually the desire to extort something of value from literally everything around them.

     The intensity of it should have broken him — it would have destroyed anyone with a weaker soul or dimmer dreams. But Maverick had enough tenacity, even at the age of twelve, to see that if he could conquer the power instead of being conquered, maybe all his unbelievable ambitions would have ground to stand on.

     And so he’d chosen to take control and persevere. He’d forced himself into silent meditation every day as he learned to take it all in, process the tidal wave of information trying to sweep him into its drowning depths, and somehow function at the same time.

     And it took the next seven years to find any semblance of normal again.

     Even now, at nineteen, he still resented venturing into the city where the cacophony clamored in his head until he felt sick. Tens of thousands of people, all with different goals, different purposes, different intents — just the notion of it all made him dizzy.

     But he always made himself go. The overwhelm was just a weakness, and he was going to overcome it if he had to walk nauseously through Keldrosa every day for the rest of his life.

     Maverick finally reached his destination — a small hideout tucked into a crevice between the mountain rocks, high in the hills away from the city. He took one last look at the forest of evergreens sparkling with frost, and then he pushed the thick white furs aside and climbed inside. This was his little oasis from the world — a place of respite where he could press his hands to his skull and regroup.

     He’d been browsing through daggers in the market when the overwhelm had finally beaten him. The merchant selling the blades certainly thought he was on the verge of making a sale before Maverick had to curl his fingers over his temple and grit his teeth against the torment of the city’s intentions reverberating through his head.

     That poor salesman had no idea what to make of the sudden excuse to leave, and certainly would have never guessed that Maverick barely carried enough money for his next meal anyway. Nobody in town knew he was poor — they all thought he had money and status.

     It was the way he carried himself, the clothes he wore, and his obsession with never allowing a stain or a wrinkle to tarnish his image. He spoke with a studied vocabulary and never let his expressions betray emotion, so when people looked at him, he appeared wise and wealthy. People were extremely accommodating when they thought that pleasing him would benefit them in some way. And he took advantage of that wherever he could.

     He wasn’t sure why Keldrosa had defeated him today — it had been weeks since he’d lost his grip on reality.  Maybe it was the coming harvest, and everybody’s feelings of purpose as the food they’d worked so hard to grow was finally ready to be plucked and stored. There was a scramble to get it all done before the freezing wind from the higher hills made its way into the valleys, and the city organizers were already hard at work planning the harvest festival for the end of the season. Maybe that was it. The intent of the city had just suddenly become too much.

     The forest had calmer, gentler wants. The plants simply meant to survive, grow, and once a season, shed their leaves in preparation for winter — although not many deciduous trees happened to grow in the rocky elevations of his hideout.

     Animals were more complicated, with real intents that matched a Human’s — just in a more limited range.  Maverick could feel a few small thoughts around him — probably winter mice working on a seed-harvest of their own. Catch lay next to him with the intent to support and please at the top of his mind. Thank life for dogs — they were infinitely more loyal and helpful than people.

     There was also a higher form of predator stalking the woods a distance away. Maverick could feel the intent to capture, but not for selfish gain. Probably a mother bear, or tama cat, hunting to feed their young.

     He settled in to his most familiar cross-legged pose for composing his thoughts, but the predator’s thoughts were coming closer, practically deafening among the other desires around him.

     He sensed the intent for stealth, capture, and to… use its prey for something of value, but then he felt the distinct desire to learn. Curiosity like this was too complex for a bear or tama cat.

     And Maverick flicked his eyes open as he realized he was the prey. The stalker wanted him for information — to learn something from him.

     He leapt silently to his feet and whispered, “Stay,” to Catch before he pushed past the fur door and emerged into the silent forest. He couldn’t hear a single footstep, but the hunter was coming steadily closer, approaching from the top of the cliffs.

     What they didn’t know, was Maverick could move with equal silence, and he slipped into the trees to circle around behind.

     He couldn’t imagine why anybody would think to hunt him down — Maverick didn’t know anything special.  Maybe his self-made reputation was making him look more important than he was. He was certainly ready to find out.

     He climbed up the side of the rock face without making a noise, and the moment he peeked his head over the crest of the cliffs, the stalker ducked from sight and crawled between the rock crevices to get the drop on him. If not for his power, he’d still have no idea anyone was even here.

     Maverick pulled his polished sword from his side and approached cautiously, wishing he had a bow, or at least something sharp and deadly to throw. He should have stolen one of those shanking daggers.

     He felt the intent to flank him as the thoughts relocated in a flash of movement — the hunter was inhumanly fast.

     Fear numbed his veins as he realized it was most likely an Escali — which meant his whole life of dreams and ambitions might just be coming to a close.

     The presence darted behind him as Maverick whipped around to see it ten paces away, standing in the open — and he dropped his jaw.

     It was an Escali woman holding her arms placatingly toward him — a creature that was part terrifying monster, while the other part of her was all stunning woman. Maverick had heard legends of Escalis like this — ones who could woo men to their deaths with just a beckoning of their fingers. He would have been mesmerized by her lithe body and wavy golden hair, but he was more disciplined than that. Maverick kept his sharp eyes on the more monstrous features — the spikes of bone protruding from her elbows, her wickedly sharp teeth, and cloudy, demonic haze to her green eyes.

     “It’s ok,” she said quickly, turning her hands to either side to show herself unarmed. Her words were Escalira, but the intent of them was clear enough they might as well have been spoken in Icilic. “I was told you’d be able to understand me. Can you nod if that’s true?”

     Maverick nodded slowly as shock and fear coursed through his frozen veins and he clutched his sword for dear life. This would not be how he died.

     “My name is Glidria,” she said slowly, taking a cautious step closer, hands still empty as Maverick readied himself for a cue that she was about to strike. “You are… Mauvrik?”

     “Maverick,” he corrected softly, watching her closely as he read everything about her. Something was… different.

     There was no selfish intent. It didn’t make sense. She clearly wanted him, but not for herself.

     “Do… you know any Icilic?” he asked, still tensed and waiting. It didn’t matter if the intents were selfish or not — she’d come here specifically for him.

     “I was warned of this too,” she said, “that you would be able to understand me, but I wouldn’t be able to understand you. I don’t know any of your words.”

     Maverick couldn’t tear his gaze away from her eyes. The green irises were frighteningly cloudy as all the stories had always claimed, but also… honest. They portrayed everything she was feeling — her fear, her determination, and her reassurance as she said sincerely, “I’m not here to harm you. I’ve simply never met a Human. I thought if you could sense my thoughts and know I’m not a threat, perhaps you would be willing to talk to me.”

     Maverick raised his brows, because that explained the curiosity she felt toward him. He didn’t have any special information she needed — she just wanted to know about Humanity.

     “I brought you gifts,” she said cautiously, reaching very slowly toward her own pockets, so as not to startle him. Maverick could sense she truly wasn’t drawing a weapon, and he waited until she held two cloth wrapped items out to him. “They’re Escali foods,” she said, taking a wary step closer to hand them to him. “Some of our finest.”

     Every one of his honed senses confirmed that she didn’t mean him any harm — he could see it in her stance, hear that nobody was nearby, sense the honesty in her heart, and smell the food she was holding out to him — but sheathing his sword took an act of willful choice. He had to choose to trust those senses, more than the fear attempting to panic him.

     Maverick sheathed his blade and warily stepped forward to take the items from her hands as she said, “the second is a dagger of our finest craftsmanship. My informants say you keep looking at daggers, but never buy them. I thought perhaps it might be a gift you would appreciate.”

     Shock may have just permanently widened his eyes as he pulled the cloth off each side to reveal an intricately etched, double-edged blade with a silver hilt. It wasn’t the quality of the incredible blade that was making him feel sick — it was that he’d been watched, clearly quite often, and never sensed it.

     “I didn’t mean to startle you,” she said, taking a step back to give him his space again. “I just want to learn from you. Your language. Your customs. Your history. I want to know it all.” Maverick wanted to be able to speak, to ask why, but she wouldn’t understand. “I’ll give you time to consider, and then I’ll return. In three days,” she said, taking another step back. And some strange new feeling in his chest urged him not to let her leave. “If you’re not here, then I’ll assume you didn’t want to meet with me. But…” Her eyes met his, and a nervous jitter flitted through his chest. “I hope you are here. I’d like to know more. I hope to see you.”

     She retreated further and was almost to the trees when he asked, “Why? Who are you, and what do you want to know?”

     She tilted her head like an uncertain animal as her loose, shoulder length hair whipped about in the breeze. And something about the strange movement made him even less eager to see her go. She was full of peculiarities and secrets to unravel. She was exciting and magnetic, with a draw he’d never felt to anyone. Maybe it was magic, some sort of seductive enchantment, but that didn’t make it any less real.

     “Are you asking why? Why your history and customs interest me?” she asked.

     Maverick nodded as she pulled her golden locks of hair behind her shoulder to keep them from the tangling gusts of wind. “I come to you because I am Glidria, first sister to our Epic, Prince Avalask, and future queen over all Escali-kind.” She broke into a grin at the look of pure shock on his face. “I’ll one day be in charge of leading the war against Humanity, and I want to know the minds of those I war against.”

     Maverick’s jaw had fallen entirely open, but the unfamiliar feeling in his chest had taken on a voice of its own and insisted, don’t let her go!

     He wouldn’t believe she was real if he couldn’t sense her honest intent. Everything about her was sincere, and… selfless. She wanted to be the best ruler she could, for the benefit of the Escalis. He nearly forgot for a moment that he was decidedly not Escali, and was actually a member of the species they tended to hunt for fun. The ones she planned to war against.

     “I hope to see you in three days,” she said, “so I may learn this strange language in which you sing.” Glidria vanished into the trees and was gone.

     Maverick had never in his life met anyone who scared him so deeply, but he knew without any doubt he’d be back in three days. He was already addicted to the feeling, and a part of him felt like he was in withdrawal. She’d exuded status in every action, and that was something he needed to learn from her.

     He finally turned to climb back down and rejoin Catch in the hideout, and he found himself mulling over how he would even begin to teach the Human language as he scaled the steep rocky cliffs. He pushed the entrance furs aside and found Catch eager to greet him. His companion had sensed trouble and was worried.

     Maverick sat and let Catch lean into his side as he grabbed his oldest possession — a worn out grammar and vocabulary book with a tattered cover that had been opened and appreciated thousands of times. It had been his only companion during the years he couldn’t bear to be around people. Studying every rule and every pronunciation in the vast lexicon of both Icilic and the regular Human language had kept alive his dreams of someday being somebody worthwhile. A man who spoke well carried a certain air about him that people noticed, whether they consciously realized it or not.

     It was one of his deepest held secrets — his love for the rules of grammar and language — and now this Escali had shown up, wishing to learn it from him? Not only an Escali, but one of the legendary women. A member of their royal family. The future queen.

     What world was he living in?

     He wasn’t sure he’d ever believed in fate, but now he couldn’t doubt it must be real. How else could the most prestigious Escali in all the world have just come to him, asking to learn about the artform he loved most?

     He felt suddenly more alive than ever before in his life, and jittery with nerves. Maybe it was her status that was so exciting, or the fact he would get to revel in the structure of the Human language with a fearfully attractive woman who was eager to learn it. Maybe it was the fact he’d been singled out as someone incredibly special, or maybe it was just her. She’d done something to him that had reached the innermost fire of his being, and whatever it was, he couldn’t deny he wanted more.

     Maybe it was the combination of all of it making him antsy with excitement, but whatever it was, Maverick had never felt such an imperative pressure that he must not mess this up.

     Fate would never hand him anything nearly as precious as this opportunity again, as long as he lived.

     At least, that was what he thought.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.”