Living on the border didn’t seem like a bad idea until Kira’s neighbor was murdered. House fires don’t start themselves.
It’s probably Ryon’s fault. Kira didn’t mean to shoot him, but he shouldn’t have been spying on their land. And he’s probably the one who started the fire, anyway—those bright eyes mean he’s from that tribe of wild fire-mages.
But now he’s her only chance of getting back home before war breaks out… and she becomes lost behind enemy lines.
Jamie is currently seeking a literary agent.
Emberhawk Chapter One
Kira plowed through a blackberry bramble. Thorns raked her shins as purple smeared across her kimono, but she barely felt it. Her breath came in gasps.
A branch snapped behind her, betraying the trace cat’s position ten feet away.
I never should have crossed the border!
Kira veered right and strained to recall the position of the tripwire in her big game trap. It had never caught anything, but then again, the bait had never been so good.
Claws raked through the back of Kira’s arm. She screamed and leaped over the tripwire.
The trap’s young birch flared like a whip. Kira glanced over her shoulder as the noose snagged the cat’s shoulder. It sent the beast in a flailing, screeching arc to the forest mulch.
Kira stumbled to a stop as the tree straightened, dangling the trace cat just out of reach of the ground. The beast snarled and sank its claws into the birch’s pale bark, then focused on Kira with slitted eyes that glowed like the sun.
By the tails… it actually worked! Kira leaned against a distant tree, gulping in air. She twisted her arm to get a look at her sliced tricep. Warm blood seeped from her skin and stained the floral-patterned silk of her sleeve.
Great. Is this the third dress? Mom’s going to kill me. Kira glared at the trace cat’s shimmering beige coat as it twisted on the rope like a fish out of water. Too bad you’re not on the… menu…
She trailed off when the cat’s body vanished from the autumn forest. But the noose still hung from the quivering birch, and the fiery eyes swung disembodied in mid-air—still fixated on her with wild hunger.
Kira smirked. You’re a trace cat, alright. Too bad you can’t disappear without a trace from my trap, you rabbit-snatching thief. She hitched her kimono up her thigh until she could reach her sheath of three throwing knives. She slid one free.
The trap groaned against the trace cat’s weight. The noose pulled at the tree until it snapped in half with a flurry of shards. Amber leaves on the ground flattened as an invisible form smashed into them.
Syn! Kira’s stomach jumped into her throat as the splintered tree twisted toward her. Disembodied orange eyes bounded forward with a lopsided gait.
She threw her knife at its left eye. The blade glinted and sank into the glowing iris, and the trace cat reappeared as it collapsed in a snarling heap.
Kira backed away and scrambled for another throwing knife, but her fingers were slick with blood. Her heart pounded as the predator’s writhing slowed and stopped. The forest grew still and quiet.
Is it dead? Kira stood frozen and watched the cat’s body for a full minute. Her knife stuck out from its eye like a victory flag. No way…
She crept forward until she hunched over the cat’s drooling maw. Its fangs were as long as her fingers, and its breath was as rank as the gore that stained its lips. The glow within the eyes dimmed to a dull brown.
Kira’s trembling fingers reached for the blade and snatched it out. Blood barely trickled from the wound, indicating that there was no pulse to force it out.
I just killed a trace cat. A grin stretched across Kira’s face. Wait till Lee hears—
Oh, no. Her smile vanished. If I tell him, he’ll tell Dad I crossed the border.
The cuts in her arm burned for attention, searing as if the cat’s claws had been made of salt. Kira hissed and tore the ravaged sleeve off with a loud rip.
She used the ruined silk to mop up the blood on her arm, then to clean her throwing knife. I’ll just tell everyone I fell on some rocks at the river or something. She pulled a fresh cloth from the folds of her kimono—the one she’d planned to use for harvesting blackberries, which now felt like a fool’s errand. If Dad finds out I ran into a trace cat, he’d think I was much farther into tribal territory. And he’s so bleeding protective that it wouldn’t matter that I killed it. He’d lock me in the root cellar for a week.
Kira wrapped the cloth around her arm and pulled the knot tight with her teeth. Since when are trace cats this close to the plains? She kept an eye locked on the beast’s body. You’re hungry from the drought, too, huh? Well, we don’t have any food here, either.
The trace cat lay as still as a mural, but an uneasy feeling lodged in Kira’s chest. I could sell that pelt for a fortune in Navarro, but it probably weighs more than I do.
She took a deep breath, turned on her heel, and hurried east. A thrill of victory blossomed in her chest as she ran, but the lack of rabbits in her hand made her stomach rumble. Dinner would be another assortment of preserves and cheese since she’d failed to provide anything fresh.
Light broke through the trunks as Kira crossed the border. Blonde fields spotted with cattle stretched up to a hill topped with her family’s house, hay barn, dairy, and a pink-blossomed cherry orchard.
But that was on the opposite side of the valley—before her was a rickety fence surrounding a cluster of knot-covered sheep. The squat wooden farmhouse in the distance was her neighbor’s.
She grimaced. Of course Noa’s right there.
A young man leaped over the fence and jogged over. The dark skin of his smooth face was etched with concern. “Are you okay?”
Kira forced a smile. “Yes, I was just—”
“What happened?” Noa gaped at her arm as if it was hanging by sinew. He fumbled with a blue sash around his waist.
“I fell. It’s fine.” Kira looked down at her arm and found a crimson stain soaking through the wrapping. Fantastic.
“You could break your leg and say it’s fine.” Noa moved to her side and towered over her like everyone else did. Kira leaned back but Noa gently took her wrist and draped his sash over the makeshift bandage.
She recoiled. “What are you…?” The delicate way he was wrapping the sash wouldn’t have helped the wound in the slightest. Do I look like a teacup?
“Hiding it.” Noa stepped away and tilted his head at his work, then nodded. His deep green eyes met hers with a flash of humor. “You were trying to hunt over the border again, weren’t you?”
Trying? Kira bit her lip. She had half a mind to tell him exactly what she’d caught. “No, I was just going for a walk and got lost.”
Noa chuckled. “I love that about you. Did you know your ears twitch when you lie?”
Annoyance roiled in Kira’s gut. It’s always like this with him.
She wondered if his charming demeanor was because he was a genuinely good person or because their families had been trying to match them up since they were five. She leaned toward the latter.
Pride was thick in Kira’s throat as she swallowed. “Please don’t tell anyone.”
Noa’s smile was warm. “Wouldn’t dream of it. Would you like me to walk you home?”
The breeze picked up and carried the scent of smoke. Kira paused and sniffed. “Are you burning something?”
“In the middle of a drought? Of course not.” Noa’s gaze shifted behind her.
Kira glanced over her shoulder. A reptilian creature was racing down the road that split her family’s pastures from Noa’s, kicking up a plume of dust. It stood upright on two thick legs, balancing itself with a long tail that whipped behind. It bore a saddle and rider on its back.
Xavi? Kira squinted at the colorful array of feathers that protruded from the animal’s skull like a crown. Xavi were only ridden by those with the coin to maintain them, but this one bore the soft blue banners of the Malaano Empire.
Joy lit Kira’s heart. Tekkyn’s back!
She turned on her heel and raced toward the road. “Thanks!” she yelled back at Noa.
The xavi reared its neck and trotted to a stop. Its rider watched her from a set of gleaming plate armor. A floral white crest on his cerulean tabard matched the Malaano Empire flag that fluttered behind him.
Who in their right mind would wear that armor in this heat? Kira slowed as she approached and stared into the rider’s helmet. His skin’s too light… it’s not Tekkyn. The disappointment almost made her forget to bow.
“Waters abide,” the soldier greeted. He dipped his head, causing several drops of sweat to fall from the opening in his silver helmet. “I seek a man named Oda’e.”
Whoa, that accent! He must be from the Island. Kira straightened as if to match the man’s formal tone. “Oda’e is my father, but he’s away at an officer’s meeting until next week. Can I help you?”
The soldier wiped his eyes with a handkerchief. “I’ve been tasked with the delivery of a package for him.” He reached into a saddlebag, which tugged on the xavi’s reins and caused it to squawk.
Kira cautiously approached and reached up to take the package: a small bundle of cloth and a folded letter tied with jute. The new angle afforded her a glance into the man’s helmet. He looks familiar…
“Are you in my brother’s unit?”
The man straightened and looked down on her. “Your brother?”
“His name is Tekkyn. He’s in a patrol unit on the southern border.”
“No. I am a messenger.” The soldier’s eyes flicked to the package in her hands. “Thank you for delivering it.” He yanked the xavi around and raced back down the road.
Kira blinked at the package in her hands. Black ink displayed the characters of her name on the cloth in sloppy handwriting.
For me? I thought he said it was for Dad! A squeak of excitement escaped as Kira dashed to a lone oak for shade. She flopped down on the dry grass, pulled out a throwing knife, and sliced through the string. The cloth folded away to reveal a slim leather sheath that displayed four knives in a tight row.
Kira’s mouth fell open. They made her current blades look like folded parchment.
How much did these cost? She pulled one out and balanced it on her finger. A flowing design was etched into the metal, which reflected a clean glint of leaf-splattered sunlight.
Kira snatched a piece of parchment that was tucked into the sheath. She read:
Lady Kiralau Tomboy the Third of Frizzington,
Frizzington? Really? Kira’s nose wrinkled in distaste even as a smile crept across her face. She pressed a hand down on her gravity-defying locks as if she could force the curly strands back into her skull. Jerk.
Miss you. Hope these will keep you company instead. Love ya.
Kira stared at the ink. ‘Instead’?
She grabbed the letter and flipped it open. It was marked with the same floral emblem from the messenger’s tabard—the seal of the Emperor.
Oda’e of Navarro,
You have been bestowed a great honor. Your eldest son, Tekkyn’ashi, has displayed skill in swordsmanship that rivals the Generals of the Island. As such a valuable asset, he shall continue to serve on my unit for an additional two years. We have been reassigned to guard the northern border, and I will personally see that he is able to visit home when we pass through Navarro.
Kira re-read the letter, her heart pounding harder with every repetition. He can’t do this. The draft is for two years, and Tekkyn just finished!
She nearly crushed the letter in her fist and looked back to the road. The messenger was long gone.
How can they do this to us? We crossed the Sea of Bones three generations ago! And what has Malaan ever done to help? They have no right to draft us and tax us and…
Kira gritted her teeth and closed the letter as if it had never been opened. Tears blurred her vision and cleared a stinging she hadn’t noticed before.
The wind carried the unmistakable smell of a wood fire. Where is that coming from? She scanned the horizon.
Across the valley, Noa’s house fed a black pillar of smoke that snaked into the heavens.