To marry into the most powerful family in Varin is to step into a trap. Della has spent thirteen years under the scrutiny of Pelismara's political elites, supporting Tagaret in a dangerous pretense as his brother Nekantor's closest ally. In secret, however, they've planned to escape, and to break down the restrictions of Varin's caste society. When Nekantor offers to send them to Selimna, the city where their caste experiments can be carried out, how can they not accept the opportunity?
But ever since Nekantor seized power as the Eminence Herin's Heir, he's wanted to keep power in the family, and that means his eye is on the childrenespecially their thirteen-year-old brother Adon. In their absence, Nekantor begins to execute his own long-schemed plan, and soon Della realizes they've unwittingly become a part of it.
How far does Nekantor's influence spread? How much will he seek to control? And how can she save Adon from falling into his snare?
About the Author
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Birthdays just weren't the same when everyone expected you to live. Adon loved the excitement of the preparations, but today, on the eve of turning thirteen, he knew tomorrow was going to be anticlimactic. He'd been singled out as a lucky exception to the decline of the Grobal Race since the day he was born. This morning, Mother had caught him moping, and asked if he'd prefer the kind of pawing congratulations other noble boys received for managing not to die of hemophilia, heart defects, or inherited cancers. He shuddered at the thought, yet the fact remained: he just wasn't like most people.
Soft-footed, he moved among the boisterous boys who ran between classes in the vaulted stone hallway of the Grobal School. Usually he would linger to avoid the rush, but for role-play class, it was important to arrive early. And to stay unnoticed, if possible. So, not a day for fashion innovations. The sapphire velvet suit and white gloves he wore had already been adopted by several classmates, and wouldn't draw any attention.
Not far from the bronze doors of the play hall was a column, half-embedded in the wall; Adon tucked himself behind it and pressed his nose to the cool stone. He evaluated the others with his right eye. Boys in gangs, scheming for the hour to come. If not for them, role-play would have been his favorite class. He could have talked to Imbati-caste servants his own age, gotten to know them with an eye to hiring a bodyguard when he turned seventeen-which was supposed to be the whole point. Not, who can be rude to the most Imbati in an hour?
Adon scanned and found a gang of his cousins from the First Family. Xeref and Cahemsin were in that group, but they never seemed to agree on which servant to approach first. Running it was, then, as usual. He tugged his gloves tight, and shifted his weight to his toes.
With a click, and a shift in the cool air, the heavy doors swung open.
Adon dashed forward, dodging between gangs into the hall where Imbati awaited their testing. After he'd bumped a couple of older boys and gotten elbowed for it, he slowed a bit. Don't try to get out ahead, just find Imbati Talabel.
Talabel: she stood calmly in her maroon uniform. Though she stood within arm's reach of a brass chair at one of the tables, she didn't touch it. Tall, graceful, eighteen-she wore her hair in twists, and her eyes seemed to speak. Adon wished he could erase the small Imbati castemark of black paint between her eyebrows, so he could see her whole face, just once. Sometimes, in secret, he tried to stand like her. He never could find that Imbati poise.
Just as he drew close, Venmer of the Eighth Family veered off another nearby servant and tried to beat him to Talabel; Adon leapt past and blurted, "Imbati-Talabel-I-require-your-service!"
The Imbati girl bowed. "Yes, Grobal Adon, sir."
"Adon, you took my servant," Venmer drawled behind him.
He didn't want to answer. He wanted to talk to Talabel. He glanced up at her; she seemed to approve of him staying put.
"Adon," Venmer said, louder this time. "Give her to me."
He shook his head, no.
"Your mother's a muckwalker. She brings fever-carrying Lowers to contaminate our air."
Lies. Adon's cheeks burned, but he said nothing.
"Tunnel-hound." Venmer shoved his shoulder, hard enough that Adon stumbled forward by a step. "Your mother wants doctors to inject us with Lowers' blood."
That's not true. That's not how inoculants work. But he'd heard all of this before, and arguing never helped. "Come on, Talabel," he said, "let's go somewhere el-"
Venmer grabbed him roughly by the back of his coat.
Adon squeaked, "Talabel, defend me!"
The servant took a step forward. "Please release him, Venmer, sir."
"Ha!" Venmer scoffed. He shook him so his teeth rattled. "That's not going to work this time. You can't fool me."
Adon winced, and caught Talabel's gaze pleadingly.
"Sir," the Imbati girl said. "Please release him. This will be my final request."
Venmer laughed. "What are you gonna do, Imbati? I've called your bluff; admit it. You can't do a thing to me."
"Grobal Venmer, sir. I shall simply role-play as manservant and bodyguard to Adon of the First Family, as requested, according to the play hall rules."
The gloved hands on Adon's jacket slipped slightly. "You wouldn't dare."
"Pardon me, sir."
She flashed past. Adon spun around as Venmer's hands dragged down his body. He jumped and pulled his leg away, and found Venmer lying face-down on the floor. For an instant, Talabel's eyes came up to his and she smiled. Actually smiled! Then the moment was gone, and her face returned to its Imbati calm.
The Eighth Family boy surged up with a roar. Adon took three steps backward, every nerve afire, intensely aware that Talabel was taking a place beside his left shoulder.
"You can't do that!" Venmer shouted. Rage pulsed in his face. "Whose side are you on?"
My own? Adon took a breath, but Talabel murmured down to his ear, "Don't answer."
He pressed his lips shut. He could feel all eyes in the room on them. But role-play was how you tested a servant's qualifications, and wasn't that exactly what he was doing? What those other boys did-sneering at the Imbati, or humiliating them-made no sense.
Venmer raised gloved fists as if to strike, but then shook them instead. "I'm reporting you, Imbati! That was a fault, you hear me? You're not allowed to touch your betters!"
Adon relaxed slightly. Venmer had it backward: nobles of the Race were the ones expected to keep their hands to themselves. Imbati were allowed to touch those they served-Mother's Aloran styled her hair, and dressed her, and helped her in the bath.
Venmer stormed off toward the Schoolmaster supervisor. Imbati faded out of his path, but when younger schoolmates were too slow, he shoved them out of his way.
Adon's breath came faster than he liked. Would the Schoolmaster supervisor intervene? Surely he wouldn't be told his actions reflected badly on the First Family, or Mother . . .
He whispered, "You were perfect, Talabel. Like a certified manservant." Which, in a few months, she would be. If only he were older . . .
"Thank you, sir."
"If he asks, I take full responsibility for my orders. I won't let the Eighth Family get you in trouble."
An unexpected shift in the air brought his head up; he stood on his toes to look toward the entrance. The massive bronze doors were opening again, and a hushed stillness spread outward. All eyes swung to the man who entered: tall, thin, commanding, with a streak of gray in his sandstone hair, a noble nose, and a gaze that seemed to stab right through you.
His least favorite birthday inevitability was here a day early. Every time he saw his older brother Nekantor, Adon felt a sudden urge to hide.
Murmurs chased through the room. "By Varin!" "It's the Heir." "Nekantor." "The Heir!" "Nekantor of the First Family, impress him and he could make your career!"
Those words started a sinister change. Boys shifted-Imbati tensed-and suddenly two Twelfth Family boys started throwing punches at the servant they'd been working with. Next thing Adon knew, all the boys were doing it, the air filling with jeers and cheering while the Imbati tried to dodge. Nekantor didn't seem to notice, or care, but the young manservant behind the Heir's shoulder did. Professional as he looked in a black silk suit with his hair in long braids, he would know firsthand how the students felt, because he didn't look that much older than Talabel. His tattooed forehead pinched-a look that made Adon's stomach hurt.
There was a quiet grunt, and Adon jumped. A punch had landed on an Imbati boy right behind him. Merciful Heile, please make them stop! But there was no reprimand after the contact, which only made things worse. Adon could feel terror and desperation all around him, while his classmates renewed their attack.
"T-Talabel," Adon stammered, clutching at the nearest brass chair.
"Sir." Even in that single word, her voice shuddered.
Adon's mind whirled. Play hall rules said not to damage the Imbati-that's what they said! Under the eyes of the Heir himself, how could these boys justify what they did? Why didn't they cringe at their own behavior? And why did the supervisor not enforce the rules?
Then the hard brass of the chair in his hand gave him an idea.
"The chairs, Talabel. Stack them."
She nodded. "Yes, sir."
"Wait. Not just the chairs. Stack everything. Chairs, tables. You'll-you'll need help. Take as much as you need. Take all you need."
Her eyes widened. "Yes, sir."
Talabel ran to a small Imbati boy who had managed to hide near a curtain, and spoke into his ear; in seconds the two of them were running through the room. They never raised their voices, but each time they drew near, the next servant would turn away from their attackers and seize the nearest chair. Something in how effortlessly they wielded the heavy brass gave the noble boys pause. It also clearly disturbed his brother. Nekantor's fingers flickered over his vest buttons, once, twice. Then he looked down at his watch.
Adon felt the Imbati's pleading gaze come to him. His breath hitched in fear, but he ran to the center of the room.
"Here!" he shouted. "Imbati, bring them here, tables on this side, chairs on this side." He added recklessly, "In the name of the First Family!"
Cries of outrage echoed through the hall, but it worked: the Imbati broke free of their tormentors and came to him. They began to create a pile of chairs, higher and higher.
Adon couldn't help a fearful glance toward his brother. Nekantor was looking directly at him, this time; it made him uncomfortable. Adon turned away instead to the servants. Every Imbati who came near had eyes full of gratitude, and his heart swelled, big enough to burst.
The next time he looked, the Heir had turned away. His servant opened one of the bronze doors for him, and the two of them vanished into the hall outside.
The Schoolmaster Supervisor moved into the room, waving baffled schoolboys out of the way. "Halt, halt!" he shouted. "This session is adjourned. Boys, early dismissal."
Those were powerful words. The rest of the boys broke into cheers and mobbed the doors. The Supervisor shouted instructions as he followed them out into the corridor.
Adon's throat felt tight. Most people had no idea how to relate properly to servants-Mother often said so-but that was worse than anything he'd ever seen. Worst of all, his brother had caused it somehow. With a deep breath, Adon took a first step toward the exit.
And found Talabel standing in front of him.
He lifted his eyes to her golden face, and his breath caught. Her graceful brows were serious, just that small circle of black paint between them. A drifting wysp cast light that gleamed on the black buttons of her uniform. Her lips curved into a faint smile.
"Adon, young sir," she said. "Thank you."
His cheeks burned. "No, thank you. It was a stupid idea, but it was all I could think of. You made it work-you were wonderful." More reckless words tumbled out. "Come to my birthday party tomorrow?"
"Sir." She looked away.
Adon blushed harder. "I mean it! We're not like those boys; we're nicer. You'd be welcome, and the Household would take good care of you."
"It's-kind of you, sir."
Behind her, the heavy door swung open again, and moving air caused the wysp to drift upward toward the chandelier. Most likely, the supervisor was here to get him in trouble. Adon hung his head. But instead, a strange woman entered, causing Talabel to glance over her shoulder.
Adon frowned, searching for the woman's castemark.
Talabel slammed her hands into Adon's chest. He flailed his arms and toppled backward.
His head struck the carpet; the play hall spun. When he could see Talabel again, she and the strange woman were fighting hand to hand-and the stranger was winning. The stranger knocked Talabel down across Adon's legs, then jumped over them both and crouched as if to pick something off the floor.
An Imbati in black sprinted through the open door and aimed a high kick that struck the stranger in the back, pitching her forward. She rolled to her feet and ran for the door-
The stranger's head exploded. Blood and worse spattered in all directions, dripping down the bronze door. The headless body stiffened strangely, then crumpled. Standing beyond the open doorway, an Arissen guard in the orange uniform of the Eminence's Cohort lowered her weapon and shouted for reinforcements.
The Imbati in black came to Adon, bending down. A brown braid swung forward; Adon followed it up to a face he recognized: Nekantor's young manservant. Concern showed in the lily crest tattoo on his forehead.
"Young Master Adon, are you hurt?"
Adon panted through clenched teeth, unable to speak, unwilling to throw up. He shook his head.
"You remember me, young Master. I'm Nekantor's Dexelin. Come with me, please, sir. I'll take you to where you'll be safe."
Talabel had already hopped off him to one side; Adon managed to stand. His legs shook. Dexelin's arm came around his back, guiding him firmly to the edge of the room.
No way was he going to look at the body. Or at the floor, at what might get on his shoes. Dexelin wouldn't let him trip. He glanced over his shoulder instead, back into the room.
Just below the edge of a wall hanging, a black burn mark smoked on the stone. That sound he'd heard . . . His head spun again, and he clenched his teeth harder.
Someone expected me to die.