By Natasha Ngan
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This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around November 1, 2022. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.
Please be aware that this book contains scenes of violence and self-harm, and references to sexual abuse and trauma recovery.
At night, the heavenly rulers dreamed of colors, and into the day those colors bled onto the earth, raining down onto the paper people and blessing them with the gifts of the gods. But in their fear, some of the paper people hid from the rain and so were left untouched. And some basked in the storm, and so were blessed above all others with the strength and wisdom of the heavens.
—The Ikharan Mae Scripts
Paper caste—Fully human, unadorned with any animal-demon features, and incapable of demon abilities such as flight.
Steel caste—Humans endowed with partial animal-demon qualities, both in physicality and abilities.
Moon caste—Fully demon, with whole animal-demon features such as horns, wings, or fur on a humanoid form, and complete demon capabilities.
—the Demon King’s postwar Treaty on the Castes
The smack of a hundred oak staffs colliding at the same time reverberated through the training pavilion. It was earsplittingly loud, echoing off the round walls, as though the pavilion were a giant drum and the warriors within it living batons, all beating to the same fierce rhythm.
Wren’s muscles were on fire. Sand from the pit’s floor whipped her cheeks as she danced and spun her bo with split-second precision, locked in formation with one of the Hanno warriors. Wren’s father had ordered her to monitor the drill, not participate in it, but Wren craved distraction. She needed to move, to fight, to feel the reassuring, body-shocking crack of a weapon meeting another.
This she could do.
This she could control.
Her sparring partner yelled with each movement while Wren parried in silence.
Sweat dripped from Wren’s face. She didn’t usually perspire so much when she fought, but she wasn’t in her Xia state, her magic keeping her cool the same way normal shaman magic was warming. And it was hot in the pavilion. The circular wall was made of woven bamboo, and it trapped the midday heat. Light lanced in through the gaps, flickering over one hundred focused faces.
There’d always been drills and battle practice. Ketai Hanno, Wren’s father and leader of the Hannos, Ikhara’s most powerful Paper clan, liked to keep his army prepared. But since war had been declared, there was an extra sense of urgency.
An attack was imminent. What wasn’t sure was who would strike the first blow. Ketai, or the King?
Locked in rhythm with the soldier, Wren was fully absorbed in each swing of her staff despite the pain of her month-old injury—or perhaps because of it. It roared in her lower back and hips, her own silent battle cry. The sensation was deep, more a weight than anything, as though her sacrum were made of steel instead of bone.
Pain wasn’t new to Wren. She’d been forged with it through her father’s and Shifu Caen’s training sessions from as early as she could remember. And though she was healed each time afterward quickly enough, magic didn’t erase memories, and the memories associated with this pain were infinitely worse than the pain itself.
They were memories of demon roars and blood on desert sands.
Of what was left once the screams and sword-clash faded to nothing.
Of a carpet of bodies—yet one even more terrible in its absence.
Her name was the echo to Wren’s every heartbeat. It was both bright and dark, both wonderful and unbearable, both Wren’s strength and her deepest agony.
It was why she couldn’t stand by watching this afternoon’s drill and not do something. Watching only reminded her how useless she’d been that night in the Janese deserts a month ago, and she couldn’t stand it. Her father and their doctors and shamans had ordered Wren to rest due to her injury. But rest and sleep were the last things Wren wanted. She knew who she’d find the moment she closed her eyes. And she knew the pain she’d feel once she woke to find the girl she was dreaming of not there.
Crammed in with one hundred moving bodies, Wren licked the sweat from her lips and pushed her partner on, losing herself in the rush of her staff.
As the warriors turned, switching into a new formation, Wren caught sight of a figure watching from the viewing gallery—where she herself should currently be. She had just enough time to register her father’s disapproval before his shout rang out.
At once, the pit fell still. The soldiers dipped their heads respectfully, weapons lowered, panting hard. Only Wren kept her neck tall, locked onto her father’s inimitable stare.
“Lady Wren,” he called in a good-natured tone, leaning forward to grip the railing. “How is drill monitoring going? Well, I hope?”
A few tentative laughs rippled through the hall.
Wren swiped a rolled sleeve across her brow. She forced her expression to remain impassive, though now she’d stopped moving her injury was screaming more fiercely than ever, exhaustion rattling her bones. “Your warriors are so well trained my guidance is hardly needed, Father,” she replied. “I thought I may as well get a little practice in myself.”
Ketai gave a generous laugh. “A good idea, daughter. Might I join?”
He launched himself over the balcony without waiting for a reply. Then, tucking the hem of his long changpao shirt into the waistband of his trousers, he strode forward through the sea of parting soldiers.
Wren’s sparring partner waited until Ketai reached them near the center of the pit before offering her training bo to him with a bow.
“Thank you, Amrati,” he demurred, turning a twinkling smile upon her.
Wren had to hand it to him. No one could fault the way her father made his clan members feel seen. While the Demon King ruled with fear and intimidation, Ketai Hanno commanded with grace, charisma, and a warm, true affection that sometimes felt just like love.
Wren held her father’s gaze as they moved into position. His smile, moments ago so easy, now had a twist to its edges. Ever since her broken group arrived back, he’d been tenser, anger and disappointment running under his calm, friendly surface.
It hadn’t been the triumphant return any of them had wished for. In fact, the outcome of the journey with Lei, Caen, Merrin, Nitta, Bo, and Hiro to gather the allegiance of three of the most important demon clans in Ikhara had been worse than any of them could have ever predicted. Not only had they lost one of their most important alliances—the White Wing—after their clan leader Lady Dunya was usurped in a coup by her own daughter Qanna, but Qanna had then convinced Merrin to betray their group by giving the King their location.
None of them had expected it. Wren, who’d grown up with Merrin right here in the fort, wouldn’t have believed it herself if she hadn’t seen with her own eyes how his grief over Bo’s death had twisted his heart, coupled with his repulsion at Wren’s drive to win the war at any cost. All of which had led to that awful battle in Jana.
A bloodied desert.
Moonlight upon a sea of bodies.
Merrin, Nitta, Lei—vanished.
The White Wing had been integral to Ketai’s war plans. Since the coup, its remaining clan members still loyal to Qanna’s mother, Lady Dunya, were imprisoned in their own palace. Ketai was determined to free them. Yet no matter how many different ways they approached a rescue during their war councils, it always came down to one thing: they couldn’t reach them without bird demons of their own. The Cloud Palace was almost impossible to access on foot, and with Merrin still missing, they had no means to reach it by air.
The White Wing’s support in the war wasn’t the worst of what they’d lost on that journey. Not by far. But at least alliances could be repaired—unlike hearts stopped by an arrow, or a young shaman’s bloody sacrifice, or a girl disappeared into the night.
The soldiers packed to the walls to free up space in the pit. Directly across from Wren, Ketai adopted a defensive stance, lifting his oak staff. An invitation.
Wren lifted her own in acceptance.
Her father whirled into action so quickly she’d barely finished her breath before he was upon her. He struck with incredible strength. The impact jarred her teeth. She ground her heels into the dirt as he forced her back. But Wren had been trained by Ketai himself—she knew his fighting style inside out. She responded with a side-duck then a jump-kick, which he rebuffed with one arm before spinning low, aiming his bo at her feet.
Wren jumped. Launched into a flurry of fast jabs that Ketai parried with ferocious grace.
Caen once told Wren she fought like her father: elegant and unrelenting. A dangerous combination. But Wren had one key advantage.
Her Xia blood.
As they continued to dance across the pit, drawing gasps of awe from the watching soldiers, Wren felt her magic calling. It tingled in her fingertips. It whispered in her blood. She held it back, narrowing her focus to her body and movements; the dark flash of her father’s eyes and the grim line of his lips.
Because of the state she’d been in after returning from the desert, Ketai had forbidden her to use magic, ordering her to rest to recoup her strength. So far, Wren had followed his orders. Yet as she fought now, pain and determination pulsed more keenly through her with each passing moment, as it had done every minute she spent without Lei, not knowing where she was, if she were even alive, and with it grew Wren’s craving for action, to be useful, to do something—
Magic burst from her in an ice-cold roar.
It tore through the pavilion, a powerful wave that threw the sand of the pit outward. There were cries from the watching warriors. They scrambled to take cover as sand dashed against the bamboo walls, showering them in grit and dust.
The magic sapped from Wren as abruptly as it had arrived. Before the Sickness, accessing her power was as easy as dipping a toe to a vast lake. Now, the lake’s once-silky waters were thick as mud, and harnessing its might was a struggle. Yet another thing the King had stolen from her. Though they couldn’t be certain, almost everyone suspected the depletion of qi across Ikhara was his doing.
Wren slumped to the floor. Shivers racked her body. Fighting to contain them, she lifted her head and saw her father being helped to his feet.
He met her concerned expression, his jet-dark eyes for once unreadable. Then, he smiled, brushing down his dust-covered clothes. “My daughter,” he pronounced with a sweep of an arm. “What a warrior you have become.”
He bowed, as was customary, congratulating her on her win. Wren returned it stiffly. When she straightened, her father was already striding forward. He clapped her on the shoulder as he passed, a little too hard.
“Come,” he said. “I have as assignment for you.”
The Jade Fort, the Hannos’ homestead in central Ang-Khen, sat on a high viewpoint amid swaths of forested valleys. It had gotten its name from the sparkling jade of the pines that spread in all directions, shifting in the wind so it gave the appearance of an island in the center of a deep, golden-green sea. The sounds of the training pavilion faded as Ketai led Wren across the grounds and into the fort through its grand entranceway, banners with the Hanno insignia fluttering overhead.
Their clan members were quick to bow as they passed. This wasn’t new, but their attitude toward Wren was. It had shifted after New Year’s Eve, when she’d revealed herself as not the simple clan daughter they’d always thought her to be, but the sole descendent of the infamous warrior clan, the Xia.
Wren held in her question for her father until they were in a quiet hallway on one of the higher levels. It was the same one she’d asked him almost every time they spoke, and she saw him stiffen in irritation as she repeated it now.
“Wren, my answer has not and will not change. Our watchtowers are on high alert for an attack. We cannot spare any soldiers. Not to mention, you are still in recovery.”
“I’m much better now,” Wren countered. “I’ve had plenty of rest since Jana. And I don’t need a big army. I could go alone, even—”
“Enough.” Like all Ketai’s commands, it carried weight. He stopped, facing her. “I know she was your closest friend. I know she meant a lot to you.”
Is, Wren corrected in her head. Means.
“I can’t imagine how hard it must be for you to not know what has happened to her—or to Nitta, or Merrin. It’s been hard for all of us. But we need you, my daughter. I need you. Besides, Lei is the Moonchosen. If anyone is capable of surviving, it’s her. I have no doubt she will find her way back to us.”
Unspoken words hung in the air between them.
Survive what? Find her way back from where?
In the aftermath of the desert battle, Wren had hunted through the bodies for any sign of Lei. She’d tried using magic to speed up the process, but she was emptied of power by then. She’d only stopped when Caen physically restrained her, telling her he’d seen Merrin flying off with Lei and Nitta in the midst of battle.
“Where?” Wren had screamed. But none of them could answer her no matter how many times she shouted it.
She’d eventually passed out from fatigue. When she woke, she was in the back of a carriage. They were traveling northward from the border of Ang-Khen and Jana toward the Jade Fort. Lova explained everything that had happened, yet Wren hadn’t been able to get her own voice out of her ears, that eternal scream: Where where where where?
She still was no closer to an answer.
Now, Ketai passed a rough palm over her cheek and gave her an encouraging smile. “Gods-willing, we will all be reunited in time. For now, though, we have work to do. I need your focus.”
They were in a quiet wing of the fort, consisting mostly of spare rooms for guests and supplies, so Wren was surprised when they turned the corner to find a pair of guards standing by an unassuming wooden door. They bowed before letting Wren and Ketai inside.
It turned out the assignment was a boy.
A jackal Moon caste boy who looked barely old enough to be a soldier, though the red and black baju of the royal army he wore marked him as one. The clothes were too loose on his wiry frame. Blood had crusted his forehead where he’d been struck.
“We caught him close to the river watchtower,” Ketai said.
They stood over the demon’s unconscious form. The effects of the small room had been cleared and its shuttered window bolted tight. Unlike many clan homesteads, the Jade Fort didn’t have cells, and in all her life Wren had never known her father to take anyone prisoner.
Perhaps he had, and this was the first time he was allowing her to see.
“He’s so young,” she said, disgust turning her stomach. Was the King recruiting children now to throw to slaughter? “He was alone?”
“A patrol is sweeping the area now, but I doubt they’ll find any others. The boy claims he’s a deserter, but refuses to talk.”
“A deserter.” Wren didn’t sound convinced.
Neither did her father. “There are no deserters of the King’s army. At least, none that live. They’d be captured and killed before making it five minutes from their station. You know, the King’s generals make the youngest members of their battalions carry out the execution? Says it hardens them.” After a pause, he placed a hand on Wren’s shoulder. “Find out what he knows.”
A cold lick traveled Wren’s spine.
Before she could object, her father came around to face her, blocking the boy from her sight. He braced her with both hands. “Everything the King and his demons do breeds young, hard boys like this with hatred for Papers in their hearts. Young, hard boys who grow up to be cold, hard men, who have taken the lives of so many we care for. They are what we are fighting against.” His eyes flashed. “You want to save Lei? This soldier might have information that could help us. If we have something more to go on, we can discuss her rescue seriously.”
Lei’s face burned in Wren’s mind: those vivid molten eyes; her slight nose; the heart-shaped chin Wren spent so many stolen nights grazing her lips along.
Ketai squeezed her shoulders. “You told me you are tired of waiting. That you need something to do. Here is something.”
Wren pushed out a breath, recalling how it felt to trawl through a sea of bodies, screaming Lei’s name in vain until her throat was ripped raw. And all the days and nights since, her heart still screaming, not knowing whether or not it was all for nothing.
Her resolve hardened. “I’ll do it.”
Her father smiled grimly. “Good. Tonight,” he said, “while everyone is at dinner.” He didn’t add why, though Wren knew. In case of sound. In case the boy needed a lot of… convincing to talk. He moved away, giving her full view of the jackal demon again.
He was so young.
But he was still their enemy.
Wren pictured Lei alone somewhere, possibly at the mercy of demons—and really, whenever were Papers not? And the pain that furrowed through her cemented her decision. Her father was right. Demon boys like this grew into demon men who wouldn’t think twice before tearing their world apart. She knew; they’d done it to her and Lei.
There was no space for mercy in war.
Even though, as she gave the boy one last look before leaving, a small voice in her head reminded her Lei would say there was.
THAT NIGHT, WHILE HER CLAN MEMBERS headed to dinner, Wren went instead to the armory to choose a knife.
She settled on a simple gutting knife: small, jagged, not yet cleaned from its last encounter. She liked the way it felt in her hand. The way it was the opposite of her own twin blades, which were elegant and long and spotlessly polished. They were a true warrior’s weapons. Honorable. Forgiving. Designed to let blood quickly and cleanly.
This weapon was for ugly deeds done in darkness. It was neither honorable nor forgiving, and when it tore skin it would hurt.
When she left the armory, Wren found Lova propped against the opposite wall.
The lion-girl’s arms were crossed. Her golden tail twirled lazily, the lustrous fur that clung to her body almost an exact color match for the wide marigold trousers and wrap shirt she wore, the top’s fastener loosely made so her generous curves spilled out. Lova was a perfect example of how striking Moon castes could be, her half lioness, half human features melded together in a way that brought out both beauty and power.
She cocked her head knowingly.
Wren strode past her.
“I know what you’re doing,” Lova said, following.
“I know what you’re doing,” Wren retorted. “You’re General of the Amala, Lo. Babysitting isn’t exactly befitting of your position.”
“Aw, are you calling yourself a baby, now? How cute.”
Wren gritted her teeth. “It was just a turn of phrase.”
“I called you ‘baby’ once,” Lova pointed out slyly, flicking her tail against Wren’s side.
“A long time ago.”
“Something that can be readily amended.”
Wren cut her a sideways look. “A long, long time ago.”
They were crossing the stone-floored atrium at the fortress’s entrance. Members of the clan hung around, talking in groups or pairs. Some stopped mid-conversation to watch their Clan Lord’s daughter and the beautiful General of the famous Cat Clan, the Amala, pass.
The pair had first met in this very spot. Wren’s father had called a summit between clan heads to discuss the Sickness. Wren had been mesmerized by the strident young lioness from the moment she’d prowled into the fort as if her very presence claimed whatever space she was in as her own. One evening, Lova had stopped her in a deserted hallway. Wren was shocked; she thought at first the girl was attacking her. But Lova only brought her hand to Wren’s cheek and announced boldly, without shame or hesitation, “You are the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen. I can’t wait any longer to kiss you.”
“You—you’ve only been here three days,” Wren had said, breathless.
Lova’s lips sharpened into a hungry grin. “I’m not known for my patience,” she said, before leaning in.
Two years, yet it felt like lifetimes ago.
It was lifetimes ago. To Wren, time would forevermore be divided into her life before Lei and her life after.
And this new, awful life without her.
She flexed her fingers, steadying herself. If the young jackal soldier had information on Lei’s whereabouts, perhaps she’d soon be in a new lifetime—one where she and Lei were reunited. It was everything she longed for, yet it terrified her, too.
I thought the King was our only enemy. Now I realize there’s been another one all this time—your father. The Hannos.
It had been their last proper conversation, on Lova’s ground-ship the night before the desert battle. And as much as Wren couldn’t ignore the thousands of sweet memories of Lei, there was this one, too, a poison in their midst, threatening to sour them all.
She would find Lei. Wren didn’t let any other option bleed in. But once she did, what Lei would she find? The girl that had loved her so tenderly and fiercely in midnight rooms and rushing countryside and under the starlight on a rolling sea? Or the Lei she’d lost in the body-strewn desert, who’d looked at her with such disgust, a roiling fury Wren never believed could be directed her way until the terrible moment it was?
Lova and Wren’s footsteps rang off the high walls as they mounted the staircase that dominated the atrium. A canopy of banners fluttered overhead. There were hundreds of them, one for every member of the clan. It was an impressive sight, the mass of navy and white, like an upside-down sea softly swaying in the breeze brushing in through the fort’s entranceway. Wren had practiced her magic here many times with Caen when she was younger, in the dead of night to ensure they weren’t seen.
Following a sudden, childish urge, she snatched at some qi to whip up the wind, shooting a strong gust through the foyer and up into the banners, making them flap. There were shouts of surprise.
Wren bit back a hiss at the energy this frivolous bit of magic cost her. She was still hurting from her time in the training pit, every bit of her aching.
“It’s the injury again, isn’t it?” Lova said. “Let’s go back to the armory. Or fight me, if you have to. I could do with some practice. Things have been rather boring around here lately.”
“Boring isn’t bad.”
Lova huffed. “Says the sole survivor of Ikhara’s legendary warrior clan, who will soon defeat the King’s cruel rule to bring about a new age in our land’s history.” Her tone lost its teasing edge. “Boring wasn’t in your past, Wren Hanno. And it isn’t in your future.” When Wren didn’t respond, Lova caught her elbow. “This isn’t like you,” she said quietly.
“Isn’t it?” Muscles tightened in Wren’s jaw. She remembered again Lei’s words: enemy, you. She sensed Lova wanting to continue the conversation, so she shot her a cutting look and they climbed the next few floors in silence.
When they arrived at the room her father had shown her to earlier, the guards bowed, opening the door.
“You don’t have to come with me, Lo,” Wren said. “Especially seeing how much you disapprove.”
“Oh, honey,” Lova purred, “as if I’m one for doing the good, sensible thing.”
- On Sale
- Nov 1, 2022
- Page Count
- 448 pages
- JIMMY Patterson Books