Lasía crouched behind a log in the middle of the woods, trembling. Behind her, she could hear her half-brother’s footsteps steadily approaching.
“Where are you, little weed?” Dairámo sneered, his voice laced with malice. She heard laughter, and her worst fears were realized: He wasn’t alone.
Lasía curled into a tighter ball, her face shielded by long black curls. Please don’t find me. She tucked tiny, shaking hands behind her knees. Please…
“There you are.”
She screamed at the sudden appearance of Dairámo, flanked by two grinning faces. Her half-brother Dairámo, a wiry, acne-prone eleven-year-old, seemed to exude power and unbridled strength, especially when flanked by his two minions, the twins Fahi and Halae.
The twins—also Lasía’s half-brothers, same father, different mother—weren’t so bad on their own. Problem was, they did everything Dairámo told them.
And something was very wrong with Dairámo. Ever since those bad men had taken his friend away, he’d started lashing out, selecting her as the target of his rage. Even now, his brown eyes burned with hate, and with that chilling hunger for pain she knew all too well.
Lasía had only turned eight a few months ago. It wasn’t fair. How could she be expected to stand against them? She cowered, plastering her back against the log. She tried to beg, but could only whimper.
Dairámo pressed a finger to his lips, signaling silence. “Don’t scream again. This is our little secret, remember?” His accomplices snickered.
He reached for her arm.
Lasía rolled away, narrowly missing his grasp, and scrambled to her feet, bolting as fast as her little legs could carry her. She heard the taunting laughs of her brothers as their much longer legs charged in pursuit.
Heart pounding, she dashed for the edge of the woods. Thorny weeds nicked her legs and ankles, bare beneath her dress. She could just see her clan’s town starting to appear through gaps in the trees: the old, broken-down stone wall, the snake-like trails of smoke, the houses with thatched, slanted roofs.
Dairámo grabbed her arms and shoved her to the ground. Her chin struck the hard dirt. Stars danced across her vision. She crawled on her hands and knees, trying to cry out, but his hand clamped against her mouth. He forced her roughly to her back. A knobby root pressed against her spine.
“What are you gonna do, little weed?” he said, eyes wild with dark enjoyment. He laughed as she squirmed and kicked uselessly. “What are you gonna do?”
“Balah!” Fahi cried in disgust, then burst into wicked laughter. “Don’t touch her hands! They’ll spread her curse.”
Lasía bunched her fists close to her chest, trying to hide the odious flaps of skin between her fingers.
“Demon,” Dairámo said, and spat. Lasía felt his saliva land next to her eye.
All at once, the twins peppered her with cruel kicks as Dairámo held her down. She cried silently, tears streaming down her face and into her hair. She tried to bite his hand, but Dairámo was used to this. He shifted his hand so her teeth harmlessly grazed his callous. Her saliva pooled around her mouth, but he didn’t seem to care. Lasía screamed, her cry muffled behind Dairámo’s palm.
“Stop!” a deep, enraged voice thundered through the woods, and she felt her siblings’ attacks cease. “What is this madness?”
Dairámo’s eyes widened, and the color drained from his face.
A long shadow fell on the leafy ground, covering Lasía. She looked up. Towering above them in a patterned cloak, his braided head eclipsing the midday sun, stood the chieftain. Their father.
Lasía blinked at him in surprise. She had barely seen her father at all in the past year; he’d been away, doing important chieftain work with the other clans, or something. She didn’t even know he’d come back.
Her brothers scrambled away from her. They exchanged darting glances. Lasía sat up timidly and hugged her knees to her chest, compressing herself into a shivering ball. A long stretch of silence passed.
“Speak!” the chieftain roared. The golden band around his head, etched with tiny engraved wings, glinted in the bright sunlight.
The twins looked to Dairámo. Their ringleader swallowed audibly. “She is the Aberrant child, Daroha.” Dairámo’s confidence was gone; his voice faltered, cracking with early adolescence.
“And is this how you would conduct yourselves?” the chieftain rumbled. The sudden stillness of his voice was more frightening than the loudest bellow. He swept his fiery gaze from one child to another. “Like them?” He made a wide gesture, indicating people who were not present, but they all knew who he meant.
His accusatory words hung in the air. The twins lowered their heads, ashamed. But Dairámo balled his fists.
“I will speak with the elders about your outrageous behavior,” the chieftain continued, ignoring Dairámo’s scowl. “They will decide on a just punishment.” He paused, as if steadying his anger. “I am disappointed in you. All of you.”
Not bothering to wait for their reactions, the chieftain knelt by Lasía. He reached for her hands, and she flinched, shrinking back in fear.
“Child,” the chieftain said. “No one is going to hurt you again.”
Lasía gazed up into eyes that were soft pools of warmth and compassion. Wincing from bruises in a dozen places, she tentatively offered her hands. As she glimpsed the unnatural folds of skin between her own fingers, her stomach churned. She dropped her eyes, hating to see those growths.
The chieftain cupped her hands in his own, studied them closely, and frowned. In one motion, he scooped her up off the ground. She whimpered briefly in pain, then nestled against his broad chest.
“Daroha,” Dairámo said, regaining his confidence. He started after them as the chieftain carried her away. “Her hands—”
The chieftain whirled around. “If you think this behavior will ever grant you with heirdom,” he growled, “you are mistaken, young bikó.”
Dairámo’s lips parted, then snapped shut. He glared at Lasía. She saw growing in his eyes a stronger hatred for her than ever before. She quickly looked away, too afraid to see that loathing, too afraid to think about what it meant.
The chieftain’s long beard tickled her arm as he carried her out of the woods and into town. As they passed through rows of painted stone houses, many clan members stopped to stare. Lasía hid her tear-stained face behind her arms.
Finally, he brought her into his lavish, single-roomed house and set her down on a plush couch. Around her, tall candles cast flickering shadows on elegantly engraved furniture and patterned tapestries. Sweet, smoking incense wafted from wooden stands.
In the corner, the chieftain’s broad golden necklace sat propped up on a high stand, set aside for sacred ceremonies and special occasions. She gazed at it in awe. It wasn’t every day she got to see the huge necklace, with its ends delicately carved like feathered wings, and the details of its engravings emphasized with tiny dots of green and white paint. The presence of the jewelry made her arrival seem somehow special and honored.
“How long have they been treating you like this?” the chieftain said, dipping a cloth in a shallow water bowl.
She just stared at him.
The chieftain sighed. He drew near, wet cloth in hand, and dabbed it against her chin. She flinched. The cloth came away red with blood.
Sitting next to her, the chieftain gave her a sad smile. “Lasía, do you know who I am?”
“You are Kalino,” she answered in a tiny voice.
“Yes.” His eyes sparkled. “I am your father, just as I am Dairámo’s father.” For a minute, he seemed deep in thought. Then he called to the serving boy at his door, “Go to Hatiho. Tell him it’s time for Lasía. He’ll know what I mean.”
The boy bowed before scurrying off, leaving Lasía to wonder.
“Here.” The chieftain Kalino grabbed a clump of beautiful, black ribbons from a small box, and tenderly wrapped her hands in them, until they were covered like gloves. “Now, no one will have to see your hands.”
She admired her new hands. The ghost of a smile tugged at her lips.
As Kalino left to clean the bloodstained cloth, Lasía’s eyes were drawn to a wide canvas stretched across the back wall. Strange, black lines and curved lettering covered the taut parchment.
“Have you seen a map before?” Kalino said when he returned, seeing the fascination in her eyes.
She shook her head.
“See this dot here?” He pointed. “This is where we are. The Olo tribe. And our clan, Olo-onu—the head clan. These dots are all the Mosori tribes… the Ina, the Osi, the Ari, and others… this line here is the edge of Mosori lands.”
He stretched his hand further, passing over rivers, forests, and mountains. “Beyond that is the rest of the empire: Sabán and its tribes, where the Dorins live.” He said the word Dorins with an edge to his voice.
Lasía looked up at him, startled by his change of tone.
“The Dorins rule over us,” Kalino explained. “They took away our freedom.”
“I know,” she said, crossing her arms. Grownups were always like this—pretending kids didn’t know things, even things everyone knew.
She recalled the day she’d first learned who the Dorins were. At the time, she’d just known them as the bad men. She remembered Dairámo wailing, his friend in a wagon with other kids, some of them crying. The bad men’s armor had clanged and glinted in the sun as they led the wagon out of town. She never saw those kids again.
Where are they taking them? she had asked her mother. But her mother had just held her close, clutching Lasía’s head to her skirts to try to stop her from watching. She’d shushed her and sang softly, and Lasía had felt irritatingly like she was being babied—even though she was afraid.
She’d learned the word by listening to grownups talk, when they thought no kids were listening. The Dorins, they’d called those men with the long, straight swords and grim faces.
A large man entered Kalino’s house, startling Lasía from her thoughts. Kalino left Lasía to speak with the man, so she hopped off the edge of the couch, wincing from an ache in her side, and crept up to the massive map. As the adults conversed behind her, she touched the smooth canvas, tracing a line of black ink past the edge of Dorina’s borders.
She spun around. Kalino was smiling. In the man’s arms was a little ball of wiggling, white fur. Her heart rate quickened.
The man set down the wolf puppy, and it dashed to her feet. A wet tongue licked her legs beneath the hem of her dress. She giggled and bent down to stroke the fluffy fur. The puppy jumped up, licking her face. She giggled uncontrollably, trying to push the pup away as it licked every exposed inch of skin.
It was the first time she had laughed in a year. Since the growths on her hands began. Since she received her new name. Since her mother had become sick and absent. Since she became an object of scorn and abuse by her own siblings, and every day had been filled with fear and shame.
“I was going to wait longer,” Kalino said. “But after today… I changed my mind.” At Lasía’s look of confusion, he added warmly, “He’s yours.”
She gasped, thinking she misheard. To receive a wolf puppy was one of the greatest honors of their people. It meant being set apart in one’s tribe. It meant growing up with that wolf, receiving highly specialized training, and becoming a formidable team of Man and Beast. The borosai, wolf-man teams, were the strength of their armies… the pride of Mosoria.
“His name is Akiro,” Kalino said.
“Akiro…” she let the name roll off her tongue. Akiro set his front paws on her knees. He smiled up at her, panting with his goofy tongue. His eyes were swirling blue pools, like glistening sapphires. She stroked his head, running her fingers through soft, snow-white fur, streaked with light grey like specks of silver.
Tears gathered in her eyes. She squeezed Akiro in a tight, furry hug. He started to squirm, then settled against her, stealing a quick lick to her arm.
Kalino crouched in front of her so they were eye-to-eye. “Lasía, I have been watching you for some time.”
She stiffened. He sure hadn’t been watching her much lately, while her brothers hurt her and he was miles away.
“The elders have been, too,” he continued. “You are very young, but we can already see a rare strength in you. The kind that makes for good borosai warriors.”
Lasía admired the puppy, unable to meet her father’s gaze. What strength was he talking about? The kind that hid from bullies and cried when they beat her? She didn’t feel strong at all.
“Are you willing to do this, child? Are you willing to be a borosai? The training will be difficult, more so than you can imagine. You will have very little time to play. You will work hard every day, from morning to evening. And when you are older, you will be first to go to war.” He paused. “It is a lot to process. But I need to hear you say yes.”
Lasía nodded, still not looking at him.
“Out loud, Lasía.”
With a sigh, Kalino gently took one of her hands. She startled, jerking back, but he stroked the back of her hand in assurance. “Look at me.”
Reluctantly, she lifted her eyes to his. He was smiling in a strange way she didn’t understand. There was love there, but also something like pain.
“There is nothing wrong with your hands,” he whispered. “They are beautiful. Some people don’t understand that, so we’ll keep them covered for now, to keep you safe. Is that all right with you?”
Lasía nodded, then added hastily, “Yes, Daroha.”
“Good.” He let go of her hand, stood, and dismissed her from his quarters.
That night, Akiro followed Lasía home to her mother’s house. Her mother lay on her cot, like she always did, embroidering a dress by candlelight. When Lasía stepped in, her mother didn’t even acknowledge her.
“Look, Mara,” Lasía said, inwardly begging: Please look at me. Please look at me. “I have a borosai pup.”
Her mother dragged her weary gaze to Lasía, and for an exhilarating moment, held eye contact. Her expression shifted from vague confusion to concern.
“This is Akiro.” Lasía hugged him close to her chest. “Daroha gave him to me.”
The momentary strength and alertness Lasía’s mother seemed to have drained out of her as quickly as it had appeared. She sighed and went back to embroidering.
Disappointment sank heavily in Lasía’s heart—not unexpected, but still painful. Her life had just changed, and her mother barely seemed to care.
Lasía collapsed onto her cot. Akiro licked her cheek, and as she pulled her blanket over them, he snuggled against her belly. She ran her fingers down his warm little body, an ache in her chest.
“We will always be together, Akiro,” she whispered, and kissed the top of his head. “Always.”
Training began the next day.
Lasía’s morning commenced with dance lessons. It was believed that borosai warriors should learn to dance, as it provided them with agility, balance, and flexibility. She trained under a clan elder, Hatiho, alongside twelve other pupils her age, each with a wolf puppy of their own.
Lasía felt uncomfortable, at first, training with her peers. She soon found, however, that none of them regarded her with disrespect like her half-brother did. In fact, a couple of them possessed similar growths. She found kindred spirits in their company. For the first time in months, she no longer felt alone.
After dancing came combat training. For hours, the borosai pupils ran and played together, their wolves happily trailing along, through thick woods, over gargling streams, and across grassy meadows. As the days turned to weeks and months, they learned to wrestle, to throw, to punch and kick, but most importantly: they learned to steady their minds and think like warriors.
Their wolves trained, too; they learned to obey their masters, to serve them with fierce devotion, and to fight and kill on command. Unlike the wild wolves that roamed the deep forests and sometimes preyed on livestock, the borosai canines were bred for warfare—and obedience.
As required by training, Lasía no longer hid behind her long locks, but pulled her hair out of her face in a long, thick braid down her back. She loved feeling that braid swing behind her as she ran and kicked and danced.
Every day, as they trained, a few watchful Dorins stood nearby. Sometimes Lasía would send a distrustful glance their way, studying the golden sun crest on their chests, the red tunics that peeked through coats of mail, and the stiff, cold faces that stared back at her.
Their presence was a constant reminder that she was under their dominion.
After training each day, she visited her father’s house, where he trained her in matters of the mind: Teaching her about the world, about forbidden histories and secrets of Dorina, but most of all, about his dreams of freedom for Mosoria.
One day, not long after her tenth birthday, he told her a story that grieved her heart. Thirty years ago, a boy named Masano Mae’ari had been martyred because he believed in this dream. Masano had once been her father’s friend. They were only youths at the time.
“I saw him die,” Kalino said softly. Candlelight flickered in his distant, misty eyes. “I saw them kill him.”
Lasía hugged Akiro’s head close to her chest. The wolf was full-grown now, but he still seemed to think he was puppy-sized. He frequently climbed onto her lap, despite the fact that only his front legs fit, and his weight crushed her little legs. But she never chided him for it. “How did that feel, Daro?”
“Feel?” He straightened, as if taken aback by the word. “Well, I was very sad, of course. We all were. They…” He grimaced. “They… hurt him very badly, before his execution. Tortured him.”
Lasía squeezed Akiro tighter, causing him to squirm. Her heart pattered within her chest. Inside her father’s house, she felt safe. But stories like this reminded her that out there, the world was not safe. The empire preyed on her people like cattle. They took what they wanted, when they wanted. They were not kind. And they had no mercy for dissenters.
To make matters worse, the Dorins were especially cruel to Aberrants like her—people with animal parts like wings, or in her case, traits that suited her for long periods underwater. Remembering her siblings’ abuse, which had been inspired by the Dorins, she glanced at her ribbon-wrapped hands. She bit her lip, clamping down on a swell of fear.
Her father peered at her in concern. “Perhaps you are too young for this story.”
“No,” she snapped. “Tell me the rest… please.” She would probably combat nightmares tonight, but that was better than the torment of curiosity.
Kalino sighed. After a contemplating pause, he gazed at her intently. “What I tell you next you must not repeat, not to anyone. Do you understand?”
Her heart pounded faster. “Yes, Daroha.”
He paused again, driving her into agonized impatience. She fidgeted and leaned closer, as if it would help him speak faster.
“After Masano was killed,” her father finally said in a low voice, “I took his place as leader of the rebellion. It was not easy. But by the time of the Sabani uprising, we were a small army. We fought alongside the Sabani people. We battled hard for their freedom, hoping that their liberation would lead to ours, as well. But the uprising… did not end well.”
A cloud passed over his face.
“Many of my brothers and sisters fell on that battlefield. The Sabani people were pressed into hard labor as punishment for their revolt. The Sons of Masano still live today… but we are not what we once were. We must do everything now with extreme caution. The empire still hunts for us, to weed us out. But our fight is not over.” He squinted at her. “Do you understand what I am saying, Lasía?”
Lasía swallowed. She could only nod. Her fear thrummed, more violently than before. Her father was a warrior… and a rebel! Even more, a leader of rebels! What would happen if he were discovered? Would the Dorins torture and kill him, too?
She hugged Akiro so tightly that the wolf whimpered in protest, trying to wiggle free. She released him with a stab of guilt, and planted an apologetic kiss atop his furry head. Akiro licked her arm, as if in forgiveness, and rested his chin on her thigh.
“I have something for you.” Kalino crossed the room to a large chest against the wall. Its sides were carved with curling motifs and romanticized scenes of legendary battles. The hinges groaned as he produced a much-smaller box, similarly engraved, which he brought back to their couch.
“These belonged to Masano,” he said, and slid open the box to reveal a pair of kasatai: traditional Mosori weapons with leather-wrapped grips, round hand guards, and long, slightly curved blades. He lifted one of the kasatai. Amber candlelight danced along the arched edge, illuminating elegant patterns that snaked up the groove.
Lasía ogled the weapon. It was magnificent. In fact, it was one of the most beautiful blades she had ever seen. Her fingers itched to touch it, but she dared not without permission.
“He fought against Dorins with these. I’ve kept them safe all this time.” Gently, almost reverently, he set the blade back in its box. “But when you are ready… I want you to take them.”
Lasía’s eyes widened. Her? The blades seemed too important for someone like her. Besides, despite their beauty, they belonged to a dead boy. A martyr. It seemed… sacrilegious, almost.
“Symbols are powerful, Lasía,” Kalino said as he returned the box to its chest. The lid closed with a heavy thud. “Powerful for uniting people.” He sank back onto the couch, his cloak spilling around his bulging form. “I remember Masano as my friend, but many remember him as a martyr. As the hero who laughed in his suffering, who was not afraid to die for his people. His blades are a powerful symbol.” Seeing Lasía’s confusion, he smiled. “One day, you will understand what I am saying. Until then, keep these words in your heart.”
Lasía never forgot. She thought often of Masano’s story as she trained, as she peered at the ever-watchful Dorins, and especially during tax season, when soldiers passed through their village snatching up wagons full of crops and slaves.
Every year, she trembled with fear that she would be next, that she would be dragged away with other children and sold for despicable service to the nobles and politicians. She imagined being discovered as an Aberrant, and being carved apart by their hunters for profit. These thoughts tormented her dreams, but each year, the slavers passed her by. It was rare for borosai warriors to be taken, but this did not appease her dread.
Ever, Akiro stayed by her side.
And they grew strong together.
Throwing stones changed to throwing knives. Shooting sticks changed to shooting arrows. Wrestling changed to hand-to-hand combat. As the years passed, she watched her body change. Weak arms became toned and sturdy. Her body grew taller, but also robust and nimble. And even stranger things happened, unrelated to her training: Her chest sprouted breasts, her hips widened, and her monthly bleeding started. At first, these womanly changes made her feel awkward and self-conscious, but soon she came to like her curves and her beauty.
She found herself walking past her siblings with confidence; Akiro by her side, his head now to her waist. Though she still feared the Dorins, she was no longer afraid of Dairámo and his followers. They dared not attack her.
Not until she turned thirteen… when everything changed.
One day after training, Lasía was on her way to Kalino’s house when Dairámo stomped toward her, the twins lingering nearby. Lasía almost rolled her eyes. They’d been doing this for weeks now: hovering around her as she marched toward her father’s house, glaring her down. Each time, they had inched a little closer. She had mostly ignored them, keeping her head high as she strode past.
But today, Dairámo seemed to have worked up his boldness. He stopped in front of her, blocking her path. “You think you’re so special, don’t you?” he sneered. His hulking form towered over her. At sixteen, he was in every way an adult. He’d grown strong over the years working in the fields. His torc armlets were tight around bulging muscles.
Lasía simply stepped around him and kept walking.
Dairámo followed her, stalking at her side. “Why do you visit Daroha every day? Does he like to keep little weeds as his pets?” He flicked her braid.
Lasía grit her teeth, but kept her eyes forward. Akiro snarled next to her.
“Or do you think he’ll choose you as heir? Well, he won’t.” Bitterness laced his voice. “Because you’re a piece of shit.”
At these words, Lasía finally stopped. She bunched her fists as anger swelled within her. But then she relaxed her hands. Exhaled. “Leave me alone,” she said in a quiet, controlled voice. She still didn’t meet his gaze.
“Or what?” He pushed her, making her stumble.
Akiro yapped and nipped the air by his knee threateningly. Dairámo glowered at the wolf, disgust and jealousy like twin demons in his eyes.
Lasía straightened herself. She looked at her half-brother evenly. “Akiro, stay,” she said.
Akiro whimpered, but sat down, his back legs antsy. Undoubtedly he struggled with self-control to obey her, when every instinct of his said not to.
Dairámo huffed. “I’m not afraid of your little mutt.”
Lasía raised her eyebrows. Oh, you should be, she thought.
“I’m not afraid of either of you runts.” Pure hatred burned in his gaze as he drifted closer. Lasía tensed. “Know why? Because I know you won’t fight me. You’re nothing but a sniveling coward.”
Before Lasía could properly react, he seized her by the shoulders and shoved her backwards. The world tipped beneath her. Akiro barked savagely as Lasía fell to her back, her body sliding in the dirt. For a second, she lay in place, stunned. She became aware of sharp pain on her forearm and lifted it to find blood dripping to her elbow.
Seeing the dark, dirty blood run down her arm made something harden inside her. Ice cooled in her veins. He did this to her. He had always done this to her. Before her eyes flashed every moment he kicked her, beat her, cut her down… every moment she hid in fear and ran from his striking hand… every moment she had curled in a corner, crying, covered in bruises, alone and detested.
With unnatural calmness, she squeezed her hand into a fist, inadvertently causing more blood to flow. She rose to her feet. Every inch of her felt cold. Like a pointed steel blade. Like the blast of a wintery gale. Like the prick of a thousand sharp icicles.
She sauntered toward Dairámo.
Seeing her expression, Dairámo started to step back. Surprise flashed across his face, mingled with a hint of fear, as if she had just transformed before him into a more intimidating foe.
Then he straightened, fear dissipating and replaced by satisfaction. His lips twisted with a cruel smile, and he slammed a meaty fist against his palm. “I’ll break you like twigs, weed,” he spat. “I’ll—”
He never got the chance to finish.
Lasía rushed him, catching him off-guard, and rammed her foot into his knee with an audible crack of bone. He screamed in pain and swung an arm for her face, but she was too fast for him. Lasía knocked away his arm, slid in close, and struck his neck with the side of her hand.
Dairámo’s head jerked sideways, his eyes dazed with shock. She grabbed him by the neck, tugged him down, kneed him in the stomach, and rammed her fist against the base of his skull.
Stunned, he collapsed to his hands and knees. Before he could rise again, she stomped on his broken knee. He roared and reached for her, as if to drag her to the ground with him.
“Endamoi!” she shouted. In one swift movement, she redirected his arm, grabbing it and twisting it behind his back, while at the same time Akiro leapt to obedience and clamped his teeth around Dairámo’s other arm.
Dairámo screamed again, while Lasía shoved his face into the dirt, still holding onto his arm, and now sitting on top of him.
“Struggle and you lose your arm,” she muttered.
With his strength alone, Dairámo could easily throw her off him. “Get off me, weed!” he snarled, and started to struggle despite her warning. On cue, Akiro dug his teeth deeper into his arm, likely hitting bone. Dairámo cried out in agony, his voice dropping to something like a whimper.
“Do you want to keep your arm or not?” she asked without inflection.
“Get this wolf off me!” he yelled. He glared at his followers, both watching from a safe distance. They seemed horror-stricken as they glanced at each other, unsure what to do. Dairámo swore. “Get this wolf off me! Fahi? Halae? What’s wrong with you?”
Lasía flashed them a warning look. They shifted uncomfortably, avoiding eye contact with both her and Dairámo. Suddenly there were clear sides. They seemed to realize they did not want to oppose Lasía.
So they left him to her mercy.
Her half-brother twisted his head and peered at her in a way he never had before. The hatred, jealousy, and disgust was now replaced by something else: a plea. “Lasía,” was all he said, but there was something else in his voice, in his eyes. Was he asking for forgiveness? Lasía hardened at the idea. When had he ever used her name except as an insult?
She traced her free hand down Dairámo’s back. Felt his ribs. Pressed against them.
“What are you doing?” Dairámo writhed, only to be rewarded with more pain from Akiro. He cried out miserably.
She struck his ribs. The pain in her open palm was nothing compared to the pleasure in hearing him cry. She struck him again. And again. And again. Bones cracking. Tears streaming down Dairámo’s face, staining the dirt.
Dairámo’s dignity crumbled, all his bravado swept away like dust. “Please.” He sobbed pathetically, like a baby. “Please stop. Please.”
Rather than moving her, his pleas only satisfied her as she remembered how she had begged him in exactly the same way, five years ago. He had shown no pity then. Ice filled her heart, and she struck him harder. She would show him no pity now.
She drew back her arm to hit him yet again, but strong hands seized her from behind and pulled her off Dairámo. “Enough!” She jerked against her father’s grip as he spun her around, until they were face to face. Her father held her fast, his gaze stern, and gave her a sharp, emphatic shake. “Enough!”
In that moment, something seemed to clear in Lasía’s mind, as if a fog had been blown from her eyes. She glanced down at her half-brother, and a bout of uneasiness rolled through her as she watched him gasp in pain.
“Akiro, enduro,” she commanded. The wolf released Dairámo’s arm. Her half-brother moaned as the teeth slid from his bleeding flesh. He curled into himself, cradling his arm, his face distorted with agony.
“Help him,” the chieftain ordered, standing up as he released Lasía’s arms.
The twins shuffled forward and gingerly lifted Dairámo to his feet. Dairámo glared at both of them as they looped his arms around their necks.
“Take him to Aliha,” Kalino continued. “She will attend to him.”
They nodded. Dairámo grimaced when he leaned on his injured leg, but his helpers supported him as he stumbled forward. Lasía maintained steady eye contact with him until he had to turn his back.
As Dairámo disappeared around a corner, she realized she was shuddering, from adrenaline, or rage, or both. The black ribbons around her right hand had come partially undone, drooping from the palm that had struck Dairámo… repeatedly.
Her father placed a hand on her shoulder. “Follow me.”
Lasía obeyed, feeling slightly sick as she trailed him back to his house. At her side, Akiro licked her blood-streaked arm, nursing the still-raw scratch below her elbow.
When they were inside, Kalino stood in the middle of the room, crossing his arms over his chest. He released a heavy sigh. “You should not have done that, Lasía.”
She dunked her elbow in the washbasin, blood and wolf slobber washing off into clear water. “Done what?” she snapped. “Defended myself?” Even as she said the words, guilt churned within her. She knew he was right.
“You must have discernment,” he said, raising his arms and his voice. “You must know when to stop!”
Lasía stopped washing, and she and Akiro both stared at him, blank-faced. She had never seen him like this before. Kalino rarely raised his voice. And never at her.
Suddenly Kalino lowered his arms, bowed his head, and sunk onto the couch. “I… I am sorry, Lasía. I am troubled. There is a matter that ails me… and I was expecting more of you. You are still so young. So young.” He lowered his face into his hands.
Calmly, Lasía dried her arm on a towel and re-wrapped the loose ribbons around her hand. She slid next to Kalino on the couch, Akiro settling by her feet, and touched her father’s arm. “What’s wrong, Daro?” she said softly, forgetting her guilt.
Kalino was silent for a minute. He lifted his face from his hands, and whispered heavily, “I am in peril, dearest one.”
A spark of fear jolted through her. “What do you mean?” she said, lowering her voice to the same whisper.
He gazed at her, a mixture of love and pain in his eyes. “The Dorins may be on to me. They have been searching for me—the leader of the Sons of Masano—for a long time. They may have finally discovered who I am.” He tightly grasped her hands in his own. “If they… take me away, I need you to promise me something. Can you do that, my child?” His voice broke. Something like guilt mingled with the pain of his gaze.
“Anything, Daro,” she said, her throat constricting.
He stroked the back of her hand with his finger. His face took on a serious look. “I need you to take my place as chieftain… and one day, as leader of the rebellion.”
The air emptied from Lasía’s lungs. She remembered Dairámo’s words just before their fight: “Do you think he’ll choose you as heir?” She stared at him, too shocked and terrified to speak.
Unlike many neighboring tribes, the Olo passed down the role of chieftain not according to birth order, gender, or other automatic rules, but according to the discretion of the acting chieftain. Heirs, however, were never officially chosen until they turned at least fifteen. For this reason, chieftains tended to select a successor from among their oldest children… not their youngest.
“I know you are not yet of age,” he continued. “But the elders will help you until you grow older.”
She swallowed. “But… I am an Aquatic, and the youngest, and… and…”
“…and the most qualified of any of them, by far, to succeed me. You are the only child after my own heart, Lasía Kalinomae.”
She beamed. By calling her Kalinomae, he was declaring that she was worthy of the honor of his name; worthy to be called his descendant. While the title itself was not the same as being named heir—he still could have given it to her without naming her heir—it was a special kind of epithet one could never choose for oneself. One could only receive it from another.
Up to this time, none of her thirteen older siblings had been honored with the name Kalinomae.
She was the last, but now she was the first.
But her smile faded fast as she thought of the rebellion. As if reading the hesitation in her eyes, he said, “The Sons of Masano may not accept you at first, and you will not be ready, not for a few years. They are old and hardened by war. But what the rebellion needs is the fresh passion of youth. Remember that Masano was only a boy. Do not let them despise you for your age.”
He stroked the back of her hand comfortingly. “Remember that unification among the tribes is necessary, but it is difficult. Do not repeat Masano’s mistake. He trusted too easily; he was betrayed, and it led to his downfall. But,” he shifted closer, “they will unite under an idea. Use the blades. Use Masano’s story, his kasatai. Do not forget the power of symbols. Of heroes. The people need courage, yes, but they need an ideathey can believe in. An identity that can bind them together.”
He paused, and seemed to search desperately for further wisdom. For anything more he could give her.
“Most importantly, my child.” He cupped her face. “Remember, remember: No matter how others may treat you, do not act out of rage… but out of love.”
The guilt surged back, and with it a burst of cold bitterness. “But what if they—”
He covered her lips with two fingers. “No matter how.” Seeing her squint in confusion, he smiled sadly. “Tuck these words into your heart, as with all the words I have spoken to you. You will understand them in time.”
It was a phrase he had used many times in the last five years. Reluctantly, Lasía quieted the questions in her mind and did as he said. But part of her wondered if her future self would ever fully understand, as he seemed so confident she would.
Kalino sat back and studied her. “Are you willing?”
For a breath, she considered everything he said. She pondered the responsibilities of being chieftain. The danger of leading a rebellion. But in the end, her love and respect for him overpowered her apprehension.
“I am willing,” she said.
Solemnly, he reached into a casket by his couch and lifted out an elegant torc armlet of twisting bronze, engraved in white with the round, curling letters of their language.
“Won’t we do this in the company of the elders?” she asked, surprised.
“We will do your official ceremony tomorrow. But, I…” He faltered. “I wish to do this now. Just in case… just in case, Lasía.”
She swallowed, unnerved by the tremble in his voice, but nodded.
“With this armlet,” her father said, wrapping it around her right forearm, “I mark you, Lasía Mae’olo, above all your siblings, and anoint you my heir. If I am to pass from this world to the next, or if disease or disability prevents me from fulfilling my duties as chieftain, I declare that to you—and to you alone—shall pass the powers, honors, and responsibilities of Olo Chieftain. Let it be so.”
“Let it be,” she said, and gave a brief head-bow in the customary response.
Kalino smiled through glossy eyes. “I’m so proud of you.”
She smiled back, although her smile was tainted with worry for him.
He pulled her against his chest, and she nestled into his warmth. He stroked her back tenderly. There had not been many times that he embraced her like this. For a long time, neither of them moved, and neither of them spoke.
That night, Lasía walked back to her mother’s house in the glow of torchlight. When she settled into bed with Akiro curled up against her side, she wondered if she should feel happy. Would other people feel happy, in such circumstances? He named her his heir. Wasn’t this what all the children of Kalino longed and strived for? And the honor had passed to the least likely among them. The youngest. The only child of her mother. The Aberrant. The cursed one.
She turned to her side, burrowing her face against Akiro’s soft fur. How could she feel happy, when Kalino was in danger? She would gladly give up the heirdom, if only to see him safe.
She tossed onto her back again. In her mind, she watched herself beating Dairámo, the sound of his anguished cries and the sight of his blood seared into her memory. She had hurt him more today than he ever hurt her. Rather than feeling vindicated, she felt uneasy.
Was this what she wanted? Was this justice? It didn’t feel like justice. It felt… she wasn’t sure how it felt.
But as she drifted to unsettled sleep, she eventually couldn’t help but exult a little. She knew she had taken things too far with Dairámo; but still, she had bested her childhood nemesis in more ways than one today. And that made a smug smile stretch across her face.
She was woken abruptly by shouting.
Lasía bolted up in bed. Akiro sprang to his feet, growling at the sounds of startled screams outside.
She grabbed her bow and sprinted out the door, Akiro racing at her heels. All around her, people darted from their homes, assembling in a torchlit crowd in front of Kalino’s house.
Lasía dashed towards them, her heart thumping wildly. When she reached the crowd, she shoved her way through, not bothering to apologize or push gently.
As soon as she broke through the front of the crowd, she screamed—“Daro!”—and bolted forward, but an elder seized her by the arm, holding her back.
Half a dozen Dorins carried Kalino between them, hauling him backwards away from the crowd. Torchlight glinted off their coats of mail and flickered across their sun crests. Kalino’s regal robes dragged in the dirt, leaving a thin trail of blood. Horrifyingly, his golden necklace had been thrown irreverently on the path behind him and stomped into the mud.
She tried to rush for him again, but the elder held onto her fast. She was about to break his grip, but the elder whispered in her ear, “Don’t.”
She knew then, with an aching heart, that the elder was right. Trying to free Kalino would be suicide. She watched, helpless and teary-eyed, as the Dorins dragged him away from her. Kalino lifted his eyes once and met hers. They filled with deep sadness; then, weakened by his injuries, he let his head fall again.
When the Dorins had marched far from their sight, several of Kalino’s wives broke into wailing.
“He never named a successor,” one of them moaned.
“No.” The elder who held Lasía’s arm suddenly lifted it high for all to see. “He did.”
Lasía felt dozens of eyes fix on her. Numbly, she blinked away tears and stared back at them, glancing from Kalino’s wives, to her many siblings, to all the elders and tribesmen that gathered in the square. They gazed at her in shock; some, in bitter jealousy.
Of all her half-siblings, Dairámo was absent. Likely stuck in bed, nursing his broken knee. She wondered, as a passing, apathetic thought, if he would ever walk again.
One of the elders scooped up Kalino’s fallen necklace, muttering prayers as he wiped off the mud, and placed the piece solemnly around Lasía’s neck. The jewelry felt awkwardly large and heavy; the metal links dug into her neck from the weight they carried. With shaking hands she tried to adjust the piece, as if she could make it more comfortable, but it made no difference.
“May I present to you Lasía Mae’olo,” he said, his voice booming through the square. “Chieftain of the tribe of Olo.”
As one, every head in the crowd dipped in a bow. When they lifted their eyes again, she stared at them as if observing figures in a dream.
All she could see still was Kalino, being dragged away, leaving a trail of blood behind him. Her sweaty, ribbon-wrapped palms closed in a fist. Akiro moved closer to her, his wet tongue grazing her hand.
I will find you, she promised in her thoughts. One day, I will find you, and I will save you.
She lifted her chin high, observing her tribe with cold ascendancy.
Meanwhile she would take his place as Kalinomae.
Four years later…
Kindy knew she shouldn’t be on this side of town. Especially in the dead of night. Especially alone.
But it had never stopped her before.
Streaks of starlight and ekralight knifed through the dense clouds and glinted on wet, cobblestone streets, barely illuminating her way. Kindy tugged her cloak tighter around her lanky frame, adjusting her hood against the chilly air. Shadows clung to the crooked stone walls of tightly-packed houses. The lingering smell of rain hung in the air from a recent downpour, now past. She stepped over a puddle, her long dress trailing in grimy water, her flat shoes pattering against the wet ground.
A man and a woman, both dressed in swaths of sheer, revealing linen that couldn’t have been comfortable on a bitter night like tonight, stood outside an open shop. Lulling stringed music, drunken laughter, and a delectable, sweet incense that seemed to imbue pleasure all drifted from the glowing windows. The prostitutes’ eyes, painted with thick black lines that curled at the sides of their heads, trailed Kindy’s furtive movements.
“Good evening, chasur,” the man crooned.
Kindy’s gaze flitted from the male prostitute to the female, and then sharply away, embarrassment burning her cheeks. An uneasy feeling clawed at her stomach. How had he recognized her nobility? She frowned down at her cloak, decorated at the hems with geometric patterns and fastened at the top with a large, expensive brooch. Probably a poor choice.
Fear fluttered through her. As a sixteen-year-old nobleman’s daughter… this was not where she should be. She’d heard rumors, horror stories, of the crimes that sometimes happened in these streets in the middle of night.
But determination hardened her jaw and led her forward like a steel arrow. She let out a steadying breath.
You’ve done this before, she reminded herself. She forced her steps to lengthen into a confident stride, feeling her cloak billow loosely behind her. You can do it again.
Still, all the other times she’d traversed these streets, it’d been during the day—when there was a greater risk of being seen by someone she knew, but at least the only criminals she had to worry about were pickpockets.
At night, the city of Taevro was almost unfamiliar. Her breath sounded unnaturally loud in the eerie stillness of the street, especially as the brothel music faded behind her. Water dripped, steady, rhythmic, from one of the angled, thatched roofs. As she rounded a corner, a whispering breeze swayed a broken shutter on its hinge, squeaking as it dangled from its wooden frame.
She heard a scuffling of footsteps behind her. Kindy glanced back, heart pattering. For a second, she oddly expected to see one of the prostitutes, but the back of her neck prickled when no one was there.
Just the wind, she thought unconvincingly, rubbing her arms. But her heart wouldn’t stop pounding. She suddenly wished she’d snagged a dagger from her brother, even if she hadn’t the faintest idea how to use one.
After a long, thorough stare into the shadows, she continued down the damp street, glancing frequently behind her. She kept her ears perked for any movement. Almost there, Kindy. Almost there.
Relief flooded her when she finally spotted her destination ahead: A rusty wooden sign picturing a black flask. She checked one more time to ensure she was truly alone, then leaned her weight against the door and slipped quietly inside.
In the warmth and security of the shop she knew so well, she let herself relax a little. The place was dimly lit with golden candlelight, and cluttered with tables and shelves filled with colored vials and haphazard stacks of bottles. Open scrolls lined the floor, their pages stained with spills, and strings of strange glass flasks hung from rafters in the ceiling.
Kindy lowered her hood. Thick brown hair tumbled out around her shoulders.
“Hellooo,” she called, stepping over a pile of discarded vials and flinching as she avoided broken glass. She still made a poor placement of her foot and somehow tripped over herself, colliding with a shelf. The whole thing rocked, glass bottles trembling in their places. One glass toppled over and shattered loudly on the floor, before she could regain her balance and stabilize the shelf with both hands. She grimaced. “Uh… it’s me… Kindy.”
A woman popped up behind one of the tables, making Kindy shriek.
“Raena! You scared me.” She slapped a gloved hand over her heart, breathing hard.
The apothecary grinned at her with that typical, wild look in her eyes. Dark mangy hair framed her tawny face.
“Apologies, lass,” she said toothily. “I didn’t hear ya come in.” Obviously she didn’t care about the bottle. “Will it be the usual?”
Kindy glared at her, tense after her anxiety-ridden walk through town, and flustered from just colliding with a shelf. Of course she wanted the usual order. What else would it ever be?
Raena, unlike most people, was unaffected by icy looks. She continued as if Kindy had given her a regular “yes,” and disappeared behind a stack of shelves, humming to herself off-key as she rummaged through glass bottles and flasks.
As she waited, Kindy drummed her fingers on the table. How things had changed since the first day she came here, a year and a half ago. She had been only fifteen at the time. Terrified. Trapped by a horrific, inescapable future. She had secretly come for pain medicine, too ashamed to tell her parents what she had almost done to herself, no longer able to bear her self-imposed wounds.
But when she broke down in front of the apothecary, Raena had tried to comfort her. She spoke soothingly to her. She listened. No one had ever… listened to her like that.
Her throat tightened at the memory. Her finger-drumming slowed.
It had just been one dose. Raena gave her one dose. It’ll make you feel better, she had promised. And oh, had her promise delivered.
Kindy had sworn to herself she wouldn’t do it again. Not more than once or twice.
But then the cravings started.
She stiffened when Raena returned from her forage, holding a small, brown-red pouch. There was no compassion in the apothecary’s eyes now.
But Kindy no longer cared.
She reached inside her cloak, counting the appropriate number of coins from the larger pouch in her waistband. She swallowed a pang of guilt. Most noble girls in Dorina spent their allowance on shoes, specially tailored gowns and dresses, and lavish accessories, all in the latest fashions. Her parents had no idea that she spent most of her money on… well, her secret.
She dropped the coins, letting them rattle on the wood table. Raena snatched them up, smiling crookedly as she tasted their copper edges, and clucked her tongue. A scrawny, hairy cat jumped up onto the table. It squinted its shining eyes at Kindy, giving a low, threatening meow, as Raena tucked the coins into a bag around its neck. Raena stroked the cat’s arching back, and it purred.
Kindy grabbed the brown-red pouch, but as soon as she fastened it to her belt, her stomach clenched with nausea. One hand flew to her belly, and the other gripped the edge of the table, steadying herself. She exhaled slowly, head bowed, waiting for the feeling to pass.
“Are you all right, lass?”
Kindy grit her teeth. Like you care, she thought. Instead she said out loud, “Give me more of that nectar, too.”
“Mmm,” Raena said, compressing her lips with that enigmatic look that usually came when she was about to make a load of money. She produced a palm-sized vial of thick yellow liquid, seemingly out of nowhere, as if she’d placed it nearby expecting she’d need it. “That’s twelve more coppers ‘an usual. It’s off season.”
Kindy muttered an offhand curse and handed over the coins. She had the vague, dizzying sensation that she was paying in her own blood, not in expendable allowance money.
After taking a sip of the disgustingly sweet syrup, she straightened, tucked the vial in her belt with her new pouch, and staggered for the door, gaining composure again as she grabbed the wooden doorframe. It would take a few minutes for the medicine to fully ease her stomach pain, but already she could feel it dulling, at least enough to walk.
“Night.” She opened the door and frowned. It was raining again. Little droplets bounced on the doorframe and splattered on the floor.
“Night… is a strange thing,” Raena croaked.
Her statement made Kindy pause.
“Especially this time of night,” the apothecary continued. “Especially this side of town. Especially if you’re a lovely little girl like yourself… all alone.”
Kindy peered at her, flashed a mysterious, amused smile, and hitched her hood over her head before stepping outside.
As soon as she shut the door behind her, she shivered. With the steady rain assaulting her, the cold night was especially uncomfortable.
Just walk quickly, she told herself, crossing her arms and hunching against the cold. She still felt a lingering sense of sickness, and looked forward to curling up in her warm bed. Just get back home.
For the next few blocks, she scuffled in the rain, her footsteps the only sign of life in the dank, dismal street. Ekra, the ringed orb many times larger than the sun, hid its face now behind a sheet of clouds and rainfall, but the deepening darkness was no problem for Kindy. In an instant, her eyes adjusted, and her vision cut through the shadows with unnatural, abnormal clarity.
As she passed the brothel, she pulled her hood lower over her face, afraid someone might see the catlike glint in her eyes that revealed her for what she was.
She was already several blocks past the brothel when she heard laughter behind her.
Kindy’s heart skipped a beat, and she plastered her back against a wall in the shadow of a low, overhanging roof. Without moving, she watched a group of young men emerge from an alley like wolves slinking out of a cave.
There were three of them. They must have been in their late teens, or maybe early twenties. They were all dressed in black, like her, but with masks, too, that covered everything but their eyes.
One thing was clear: Just like her, these men were not in this side of town for good reasons.
Slowly, she eased sideways, her eyes still fixed on them. They didn’t see her—did they? As far as she could tell, they weren’t looking at her.
She stepped covertly around the corner and hurried away, her steps quick and light. She heard their laughter again and glanced back.
The men were following her.
Her heart galloped, her mind racing with a thousand horrors. Just keep walking, she told herself. She tried to breathe. She scanned the street, eyes locking on a pile of crates half a block away. Just keep walking.
She looked back again.
They were still following her.
Their pace was quickening, too. Deliberate.
Trembling, she took a few more steps, and glanced behind her one more time.
Then she broke into a run.
Beelining toward the crates, she fumbled with the brooch of her cloak. She could hear the men running after her, their steps splashing in the wet street, their laughter taking a wicked, taunting tone. She couldn’t snap off the brooch; her hands were shaking, her fingers numb, the clasp slippery. The crates were still too far away—
Someone grabbed her. She started to scream, but a strong hand from behind clamped over her mouth. She struggled to pull away.
“Don’t scream,” said a smooth, lilting voice. That voice. She knew that voice. How did she know that voice? “No one is going to save you,” the voice continued, showing pure enjoyment in her terror.
She writhed against sturdy arms, but more came to hold her fast, pinning her against the wall. Shock and panic seized her with a death grip, making it hard to think. She tried to cry out, but her voice was muffled against her captor’s hand.
“Come here,” that spine-tingling, familiar voice said. “Let’s see your face.”
The other two men laughed. Her captor began to turn her around, into the relative light.
The terror of being identified stirred something deep and primal within her, as if a beast had been awakened, animated from the cold ashes of her mind. Rage flashed through her, hot and thick like a surging fire.
And that thing in her snapped.
Claws tore out from the tips of Kindy’s fingers, bursting through her gloves. She slashed her claws across her captor’s face with a feral hiss; he pulled back, crying out in pain, and covered his right cheek as blood seeped through his fingers.
Another man, confused by her outburst, tried to grab her again, but she tore a deep slice across his arm. He sprang back with a startled shout. Seizing upon her moment of freedom, she dashed past the third man, who actually leapt away from her.
Kindy sprinted like a madwoman for the crates, unable to believe she’d actually done it—she’d used her claws! She’d used them! Defended herself! A thrill of dark satisfaction swelled in her, until she glanced back—and saw the young man she first injured charging after her, hand still pressed against his cheek, his cold blue eyes flashing with fury.
Wildly, she clambered up the stack of crates, slipping twice as they groaned and shifted beneath her, and hurriedly fumbled with her brooch again. Blood coated her fingers, mixing with rainwater, making it almost impossible to come free.
The man was three paces away, hand outstretched.
Come on! she begged desperately. Come on!
The man grabbed her cloak, just as the clasp finally came undone, and the cloak fell from her shoulders—
—revealing membranous, bat-like wings, which she spread as she leapt to the air—
—leaving her attackers, bewildered, in the street below.
Her small wings weren’t strong enough yet to lift her high, but with a couple shaky, unstable flaps she rose above the gutters, banked right, and collapsed in an awkward heap onto the slanted rooftop. Her body instantly slid, her feet dangling over the edge, but she stabbed the thatch with the two claws at the top of her wings, halting her descent. Frantically, she crawled up the incline, reaching the peak of the roof in seconds.
Glancing back, she saw the slashed-face man still standing there, her cloak hanging limply in his hand. He lowered the hand from his bloody cheek and watched in astonishment as she slunk down the other side of the roof, disappearing into the murky night.